Whooping cough tends to develop in stages, with mild symptoms occurring first, followed by a period of more severe symptoms, before improvement begins.
The early symptoms of whooping cough are often similar to those of a common cold and may include:
- runny or blocked nose
- watering eyes
- dry, irritating cough
- sore throat
- slightly raised temperature
- feeling generally unwell.
These early symptoms of whooping cough can last for one to two weeks, before becoming more severe.
Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The second stage of whooping cough is often called the paroxysmal stage and is characterised by intense bouts of coughing. The bouts are sometimes referred to as ‘paroxysms’ of coughing.
The paroxysmal symptoms of whooping cough may include:
- intense bouts of coughing, which bring up thick phlegm
- a ‘whoop’ sound with each sharp intake of breath after coughing
- vomiting after coughing, especially in infants and young children
- tiredness and redness or blueness in the face from the effort of coughing.
Each bout of coughing usually lasts between one and two minutes, but several bouts may occur in quick succession and last several minutes. The number of coughing bouts experienced each day varies.
The paroxysmal symptoms of whooping cough usually last at least two weeks, but can last up to 10 weeks, even after treatment. This is because the cough continues even after the Bordetella pertussis bacterium has been cleared from your body.
Whooping cough complications
Infants younger than six months may not make the ‘whoop’ sound after coughing, but they may start gagging or gasping, and may temporarily stop breathing. While your baby is unwell with whooping cough, it is a good idea to keep them close by and watch them carefully in case they stops breathing. If your baby has any trouble breathing, call triple zero (000).
Babies under a year old can be especially susceptible to complications of whooping cough such as pneumonia, convulsions and brain damage.Though very rare, it’s possible for whooping cough to cause sudden unexpected death in infants.
If your baby has persistent vomiting, seizures, or signs of dehydration see your doctor or go to your local emergency department. See your doctor as soon as possible if you think you or your child may have whooping cough.
Young children can develop apnoea as a complication of whooping cough in which they can stop breathing for long periods of time. Young children may also seem to choke or become blue in the face (cyanosis) when they have a bout of coughing. If your child is experiencing any of these complications – not breathing and/or turning blue – seek medical attention immediately. Go to a hospital or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
Adults and older children
In adults and older children, the paroxysmal symptoms of whooping cough are far less severe than in young children, and may appear more like symptoms of a milder respiratory infection, such as bronchitis.
Last reviewed: May 2017