Whooping Cough in Adults: Symptoms & Treatment

Whooping cough, known clinically as pertussis, in adults has made a resurgence recently. This is due to the fact that the pertussis vaccine wears off over time. Once thought to be a lifetime vaccine, it was found that the immunity actually faded after about 10 years. Here are some facts about whooping cough in adults.

What is Whooping Cough?

A highly contagious disease caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis; it has a very distinctive sound after the cough. This sound will be a whoop, which is the sound the voice box makes when the body can suddenly take another breath. Fatal to infants, small children and the elderly, there is clear, sticky and very thick phlegm that is produced. The coughing is an attempt to move this mucous, which can be extremely difficult to move.
The bacteria attach to the cilia of the cells in the lungs. These are tiny hairs that are on the cells that help move mucous out of the lungs. The bacteria then produce a toxin that paralyzes these tiny hairs, and cause inflammation of respiratory tract. This all works to make it difficult to clear the lungs of mucous.


Pertussis Bacteria Infection, causing whooping cough.

What Are The Signs And Whooping Cough Symptoms in Adults?

The recognizable symptoms of whooping cough take time to develop. The early symptoms include:

  • Sore throat.
  • Mild feeling of tiredness, fatigue or not being well.
  • Slight fever, that only lasts about the first week.
  • Runny nose. This is not evident in all cases.

This will turn into a mild, dry, ordinary cough in about 2-3 days. This will be intermittent, which means it comes and goes. The cough will come and go, but be persistent for the next 7-10 days. There may be some mucous (phlegm) production that is sticky and clear, but it will be small amounts, at this point. Over the next few days, the cough will become more and more persistent, laced with bouts of intense coughing spasms.

The next stage is where the characteristic cough will be seen. This generally starts at about the 2 week stage and will persist from there. The major sign and symptoms of adult whooping cough include:

  • Severe coughing attacks. These will be of a choking nature, with the whoop sound. It should be noted that only 50% of all cases have the whoop sound to the cough.
  • There may often be vomiting.
  • Facial congestion that is severe
  • The appearance or feeling that the person is suffocating.
  • The cough will be worse at night

These coughing spasms may occur as little as twice a day up to fifty times per day. Between these coughing “attacks”, which are called paroxysms in the clinical setting, the person may feel perfectly fine and there may be no coughing what so ever. The coughing paroxysms can last a few moments to several minutes and can cause fainting which will quickly remedy itself.

How Long Does Adult Pertussis Last?

Pertussis or whooping cough will last a minimum of three weeks and can be greater than three months. Also known as the 100 day cough in various parts of the world, it is this feature that gives it that name. As the body’s immune system fights this disease and gets better, there will be a reduction in cough paroxysms.

What Is The Incubation Period?

The incubation period for whooping cough in any age ranges from 4-21 days after exposure, but most commonly within 7-10 days. Some rare cases of 42 days have been noted. During this incubation period, there will be no noticeable signs or symptoms.

Spread through person to person contact, it occurs when a person who is infected coughs or sneezes. The airborne bacteria then can take hold in a person who takes a breath in the vicinity. Viable (meaning it lives) outside the human body for 3-5 days on dry surfaces, it is possible to catch pertussis by touching one of these objects then placing the hands in the mouth.

What Are The Treatments For Whooping Cough?

Treatments for pertussis include antibiotics. Although these do not help “cure” whooping cough, it does help prevent other respiratory infections from occurring. These concurrent infections are a major health risk, as the body’s defense system is lowered. With the lungs already compromised, other bacteria can take hold, causing severe health complications.

The best treatment is prevention. Getting a child vaccinated with the DTaP at the correct ages is important to prevent from developing whooping cough in infants. It is life threatening to infants and children under the age of 4, elderly people and those who are immune-compromised or have severe lung issues. Booster shots of the Tdap are recommended for adults every 10 years.

It is also recommended that women who are pregnant receive a booster between the 27th-36th weeks of gestation with each pregnancy. Tdap can be given at any time regardless of when last booster shot was received. [See article: Whooping Cough & Pregnancy

The difficulty with preventing spread of whooping cough is that the first symptoms are similar to the common cold. Because these symptoms are so common, hand washing and cleaning objects that people cough on or near is important to prevent the spread of this disease.

How Is Whooping Cough Diagnosed?

There are several methods to diagnosing whooping cough. Done through a healthcare professional, these laboratory tests include:

  • Nose Swab – This is an uncomfortable test where they slide a long Q-tip into the nose and getting nasal secretions. This is then cultured (grown) for pertussis bacteria presence.
  • Blood Tests – There is no specific test for whooping cough; however, they can test for the white blood cell count. An increase in white blood cells means there is an infection or inflammation in the body.
  • Chest X-Ray. – This may be done to detect the presence of other respiratory infections that can occur at that same time as whooping cough. The most predominant and deadly of these is pneumonia. The X-ray will show the presence of inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs.

Learn More about whooping cough on this video

Whooping cough in adults has been on the rise. With the resurgence and outbreaks, it is imperative to know the signs and symptoms of pertussis. Using this guide, you will able to better understand what whooping cough is, the signs and symptoms and how to prevent/treat it.