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How To Tell The Difference Between Whooping Cough, COVID, And A Regular Cough

It can be helpful to know which is which.

Holly Large - Editorial Assistant

Holly Large

Holly Large - Editorial Assistant

Holly Large

Editorial Assistant

Holly is a graduate medical biochemist with an enthusiasm for making science interesting, fun and accessible.

Editorial Assistant

Edited by Laura Simmons
Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

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Young woman coughing in the street.

Coughing or singing a ballad with an invisible microphone? We'll never know.

Image credit: Josep Suria/Shutterstock.com

We’ve reached that not-so-wonderful time of year when it seems like everywhere you go, everyone is coughing – trying to avoid catching something feels like an extreme sport. For most people unlucky enough to join the ranks, a cough might make them feel rough, but shouldn’t be too much cause for concern. However, with COVID-19 still circulating and a resurgence of whooping cough, it helps to know the difference between them.

Whooping cough

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a bacterial infection and is also known as the “100-day cough” because of how long it can last for; according to the NHS, it “may last for several weeks or months”. It’s a concern at the moment in the UK, with cases having risen from 69 in 2022 to 856 in 2023, with nearly 30 percent of those reported in December.

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In its early days, the infection appears much like a regular cold, with symptoms such as a runny nose or a sore throat. It’s usually after around a week or two that the coughing starts. As Professor Paul Hunter described in The Conversation, this coughing comes in intense bouts. “Each bout can last several minutes and is occasionally followed by the loud whoop that gives the disease its name. Afterwards, a chronic cough can remain for several weeks.”

The bouts of coughing often lead to mucus being expelled and can sometimes be so intense that they can cause vomiting or breathing difficulties; the risk of the latter is higher in babies under 6 months old. 

COVID-19

COVID-19, on the other hand, is a viral infection. As with many respiratory illnesses, cases have seen an uptick in the winter months, and currently the relatively new JN.1 is the most prevalent variant of the virus worldwide.

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Though symptoms of JN.1 can also include fever, fatigue, and body aches, one of the characteristic signs of COVID that’s persisted through the evolution of the disease is, coincidentally, a persistent cough. That’s part of what sets it apart from whooping cough; COVID-19 can give a continuous cough as opposed to coughing fits.

There’s also the way the cough sounds and feels. A COVID cough often starts with a tickle in the throat and the resulting cough is dry, usually making quite a coarse sound. In comparison, whooping cough is wet – remember that mucus can be coughed up – and has the distinctive “whoop”.

If a cough doesn’t feel like any of those and you have the symptoms of a regular cold, it’s likely that it’s just that. However, as always, if a cough is causing you concern or doesn’t seem to be going away, the best approach is to speak to a healthcare professional in order to figure out its cause and the best course of action.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.  

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The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.   


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healthHealth and Medicine
  • tag
  • whooping cough,

  • coughing,

  • pertussis,

  • covid-19

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