Bordetella pertussis - Whooping Cough

Primary Authors: Couturier, Marc Roger, PhD, D(ABMM). Fisher, Mark A., PhD, D(ABMM).

  • Key Points
  • Diagnosis
  • Background
  • Lab Tests
  • References
  • Related Topics

Pertussis (Bordetella pertussis) Diagnosis

CDC 2010 Case Definition

Clinical Criteria

  • Cough lasting >2 weeks without an apparent cause PLUS one or more of the following symptoms
    • Paroxysms of cough
    • Inspiratory whoop
    • Posttussive vomiting
  • In epidemic setting, acute coughing illness lasting >2 weeks

Laboratory Criteria  (one or both)

  • Isolation of B. pertussis in culture
  • Positive PCR test for B. pertussis

Case Classification


  • Meets clinical criteria definition
  • Not laboratory confirmed
  • Not epidemiologically linked to a laboratory-confirmed case

Confirmed (one of the following)

  • Acute cough illness of any duration with a positive culture for B. pertussis
  • Meets clinical criteria and confirmed by PCR
  • Meets clinical criteria and epidemiologically linked directly to  a case confirmed by either culture or PCR


  • Laboratory testing for pertussis diagnosis

Laboratory Testing

  • Optimal timing is <4 weeks post cough onset
  • Highly sensitive
  • Best sensitivity with nasopharyngeal (NP) swab or aspirate (do not use calcium alginate swabs – shown to interfere with PCR)
  • Optimal timing is <2 weeks post cough onset
  • NP aspirates may allow better recovery than NP swabs (cotton swabs may inhibit B. pertussis)
  • Decreased sensitivity in persons with cough >2 weeks, receiving antibiotics, of older age, immunosuppressed, or previously vaccinated
Serology (IgA, IgG, IgM)
  • Sensitivity is highly dependent on collection of acute and convalescent sera (single unpaired specimens are typically not useful)
  • Not confirmatory for CDC case definition
  • IgM pertussis antibodies has little clinical utility
  • Low sensitivity
  • Not confirmatory for CDC case definition

Indications for Testing

  • Patients with persistent cough, especially in the absence of fever, sore throat, hoarseness, tachypnea or wheeze
  • Posttussive emesis in setting of acute viral illness symptoms

Criteria for Diagnosis

Laboratory Testing

  • Refer to Key Points tab

Differential Diagnosis

Pertussis is a highly contagious disease referred to as whooping cough. It is caused by Bordetella pertussis.


  • Incidence – 11.6/100,000 (CDC, 2012)
    • Recent resurgence of disease in industrialized countries
  • Age
    • Risk for disease during periods of waning immunity from childhood vaccination – early adolescence-adulthood
    • Significant incidence in unimmunized or partially immunized  infants <1 year
  • Occurrence – peaks in late spring and summer
  • Transmission
    • Adult and teenage children with upper respiratory infection symptoms are significant reservoirs of the organism and  source of outbreaks in susceptible populations
    • Respiratory droplet transmission – strictly human pathogen
      • Infection rates >90% in susceptible populations


  • Gram-negative pleomorphic coccobacillus – highly fastidious
  • Multiple virulence factors are produced that aid in organism attachment and production of disease
    • Pertussis toxins responsible for many disease effects (eg, adenyl cyclase toxin)
  • B. parapertussis is a related species that may cause a milder form of pertussis syndrome

Clinical Presentation

  • Nonspecific viral symptoms
    • Often not recognized due to mild symptoms in immunized persons
    • Secondary spread common in families and schools
  • 7-14 day incubation – prolonged course ensues consisting of 3 overlapping stages
    • Catarrhal – 1-2 weeks post infection (PI)
    • Paroxysmal coughing – 2-4 weeks PI
    • Convalescent – 3-10 weeks PI
  • Partially immune persons and infants >6 months may not manifest with typical syndrome
    • Paroxysmal coughing may be absent
  • Classic pertussis
    • Inspiratory whoop
    • Lymphocytosis
    • Paroxysmal cough
    • Posttussive vomiting
  • Atypical pertussis may occur with mild or absent symptoms in adults and previously vaccinated children
    • Common, endemic, and usually unrecognized in adults
  • Secondary complications
    • Respiratory
      • Pneumonia
      • Laryngitis
      • Bronchitis
      • Pneumothorax
    • Nonrespiratory
    • Death – fulminant course more common in very young infants
Tests generally appear in the order most useful for common clinical situations. Click on number for test-specific information in the ARUP Laboratory Test Directory.

Bordetella pertussis/parapertussis by PCR 0065080
Method: Qualitative Polymerase Chain Reaction


Positivity of test is variable following treatment

Negative result does not rule out the presence of B. pertussis DNA in concentrations below detection level of assay

False positives for B. pertussis may occur in samples containing B. holmesii DNA; false positives for B. parapertussis may occur in samples containing B. bronchiseptica DNA

Bordetella pertussis by PCR 0065078
Method: Qualitative Polymerase Chain Reaction

Bordetella pertussis Culture 0060117
Method: Culture/Identification


Highly specific only in acute disease phase

Successful culture requires special media and incubation up to 7 days; highly dependent on specimen collection, transportation, and laboratory techniques

Diagnostic sensitivity <60% when specimen obtained after early catarrhal stage or after treatment with certain antibiotics; reduced sensitivity in adults and vaccinated patients

Bordetella pertussis Antibodies, IgA and IgG by ELISA with Reflex to Immunoblot 2001774
Method: Semi-Quantitative Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay/Qualitative Immunoblot


Paired acute and convalescent samples required to be useful in diagnosis for most cases

Test does not satisfy CDC criteria for diagnosing pertussis


Faulkner A, Skoff T, Martin S, Cassiday P, Tondella M, Liang J, Ejigiri O. Chapter 10: Pertussis. Manual for the Surveillance of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. Vaccines and Immunizations (5th Edition, 2011) . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Atlanta, GA [Last Updated Jul 8, 2011; Accessed: Apr 5, 2015]

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended Immunization Schedules for Persons Aged 0 Through 18 Years. United States, 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Atlanta, GA [Last Updated Jul 2011; Accessed: Nov 2015]

General References

Bamberger ES, Srugo I. What is new in pertussis? Eur J Pediatr. 2008; 167(2): 133-9. PubMed

Cornia PB, Hersh AL, Lipsky BA, Newman TB, Gonzales R. Does this coughing adolescent or adult patient have pertussis? JAMA. 2010; 304(8): 890-6. PubMed

Heininger U. Update on pertussis in children. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2010; 8(2): 163-73. PubMed

Leber AL. Pertussis: relevant species and diagnostic update. Clin Lab Med. 2014; 34(2): 237-55. PubMed

Spector TB, Maziarz EK. Pertussis. Med Clin North Am. 2013; 97(4): 537-52, ix. PubMed

Zouari A, Smaoui H, Kechrid A. The diagnosis of pertussis: which method to choose? Crit Rev Microbiol. 2012; 38(2): 111-21. PubMed

References from the ARUP Institute for Clinical and Experimental Pathology®

Cloud JL, Hymas W, Carroll KC. Impact of nasopharyngeal swab types on detection of Bordetella pertussis by PCR and culture. J Clin Microbiol. 2002; 40(10): 3838-40. PubMed

Cloud JL, Hymas WC, Turlak A, Croft A, Reischl U, Daly JA, Carroll KC. Description of a multiplex Bordetella pertussis and Bordetella parapertussis LightCycler PCR assay with inhibition control. Diagn Microbiol Infect Dis. 2003; 46(3): 189-95. PubMed

Couturier MR, Barney T, Alger G, Hymas WC, Stevenson JB, Hillyard D, Daly JA. Evaluation of the FilmArray® Respiratory Panel for clinical use in a large children's hospital. J Clin Lab Anal. 2013; 27(2): 148-54. PubMed

Merrigan SD, Welch RJ, Litwin CM. Comparison of Western immunobloting to an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for the determination of anti-Bordetella pertussis antibodies. Clin Vaccine Immunol. 2011; 18(4): 615-20. PubMed

She RC, Billetdeaux E, Phansalkar AR, Petti CA. Limited applicability of direct fluorescent-antibody testing for Bordetella sp. and Legionella sp. specimens for the clinical microbiology laboratory. J Clin Microbiol. 2007; 45(7): 2212-4. PubMed

Medical Reviewers

Last Update: September 2016