Pertussis is caused by specific bacteria that is spread by:

  • Inhaling droplets from the sneeze or cough of a person infected with pertussis
  • Having direct contact with the mucus of a person infected with pertussis

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of pertussis are:

  • Not being vaccinated against pertussis
  • Living in the same house or working in close contact with someone who has pertussis



Symptoms usually begin within a week or 2 after exposure.

Initial symptoms last about 1 to 2 weeks. They may include:

  • Runny nose and congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Mild fever
  • Mild cough
  • Watery, red eyes

The second stage of pertussis usually lasts 1 to 6 weeks but can last much longer. Symptoms may include:

  • Severe coughing
  • Long periods of coughing that start suddenly and may end with a forceful inhale or whoop sound in some people
  • Coughing that may cause trouble breathing or turn the skin a blue color from lack of oxygen
  • Periods of coughing that result in vomiting

During the final stage, the cough slowly gets better over 2 to 3 weeks. Periods of coughing can still happen during this stage.

Complications in infants and young children may be:

  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Periods of no breathing
  • Abdominal and inguinal hernias
  • Brain damage (rare)
  • Death (rare)

Complications in teens and adults can include weight loss and problems controlling urine. Rarely, fainting or rib fractures can happen from severe coughing.


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may suspect pertussis based on symptoms. A swab from the nose, throat, or blood may be done to look for signs of bacteria.



Antibiotics will be started as soon as possible. They can keep the infection from spreading to others, but they will usually not improve symptoms or affect the illness. People with severe symptoms may need care in a hospital. Others can recover at home with self care.


The risk of pertussis may be lowered by:

  • Giving children a vaccine that protects against it
  • Giving adults a booster dose of the vaccine
  • Giving the vaccine during pregnancy to lower the risk of pertussis in newborns
  • Taking antibiotics to lower the risk in people who have been in close contact with someone who has pertussis

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.