Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

An epidemiologist tests blood samples for pertussis during a 2010 outbreak.

By National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) from USA – Whooping Cough, Public Domain,

OpenStax Microbiology

The causative agent of pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, is Bordetella pertussis, a gram-negative coccobacillus. The disease is characterized by mucus accumulation in the lungs that leads to a long period of severe coughing. Sometimes, following a bout of coughing, a sound resembling a “whoop” is produced as air is inhaled through the inflamed and restricted airway—hence the name whooping cough. Although adults can be infected, the symptoms of this disease are most pronounced in infants and children. Pertussis is highly communicable through droplet transmission, so the uncontrollable coughing produced is an efficient means of transmitting the disease in a susceptible population.

Following inhalation, B. pertussis specifically attaches to epithelial cells using an adhesin, filamentous hemagglutinin. The bacteria then grow at the site of infection and cause disease symptoms through the production of exotoxins. One of the main virulence factors of this organism is an A-B exotoxin called the pertussis toxin (PT). When PT enters the host cells, it increases the cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) levels and disrupts cellular signaling. PT is known to enhance inflammatory responses involving histamine and serotonin. In addition to PT, B. pertussis produces a tracheal cytotoxin that damages ciliated epithelial cells and results in accumulation of mucus in the lungs. The mucus can support the colonization and growth of other microbes and, as a consequence, secondary infections are common. Together, the effects of these factors produce the cough that characterizes this infection.

A pertussis infection can be divided into three distinct stages. The initial infection, termed the catarrhal stage, is relatively mild and unremarkable. The signs and symptoms may include nasal congestion, a runny nose, sneezing, and a low-grade fever. This, however, is the stage in which B. pertussis is most infectious. In the paroxysmal stage, mucus accumulation leads to uncontrollable coughing spasms that can last for several minutes and frequently induce vomiting. The paroxysmal stage can last for several weeks. A long convalescence stage follows the paroxysmal stage, during which time patients experience a chronic cough that can last for up to several months. In fact, the disease is sometimes called the 100-day cough.

In infants, coughing can be forceful enough to cause fractures to the ribs, and prolonged infections can lead to death. The CDC reported 20 pertussis-related deaths in 2012, but that number had declined to five by 2015.

During the first 2 weeks of infection, laboratory diagnosis is best performed by culturing the organism directly from a nasopharyngeal (NP) specimen collected from the posterior nasopharynx. The NP specimen is streaked onto Bordet-Gengou medium. The specimens must be transported to the laboratory as quickly as possible, even if transport media are used. Transport times of longer than 24 hours reduce the viability of B. pertussis significantly.

Within the first month of infection, B. pertussis can be diagnosed using PCR techniques. During the later stages of infection, pertussis-specific antibodies can be immunologically detected using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA).

Pertussis is generally a self-limiting disease. Antibiotic therapy with erythromycin or tetracycline is only effective at the very earliest stages of disease. Antibiotics given later in the infection, and prophylactically to uninfected individuals, reduce the rate of transmission. Active vaccination is a better approach to control this disease. The DPT vaccine was once in common use in the United States. In that vaccine, the P component consisted of killed whole-cell B. pertussis preparations. Because of some adverse effects, that preparation has now been superseded by the DTaP and Tdap vaccines. In both of these new vaccines, the “aP” component is a pertussis toxoid.

Widespread vaccination has greatly reduced the number of reported cases and prevented large epidemics of pertussis. Recently, however, pertussis has begun to reemerge as a childhood disease in some states because of declining vaccination rates and an increasing population of susceptible children.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: