• Clinical science

Pertussis (Whooping cough…)


Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly infectious disease of the respiratory tract caused by the gram-negative bacteria Bordetella pertussis. The disease is mainly transmitted via airborne droplets and is most commonly occurs in children. Typically, pertussis manifests in three stages, with the second and third stage characterized by intense paroxysmal coughing that is followed by a distinctive whooping sound on inhalation and, in some cases, vomiting. Young infants may not develop the typical cough, and often present with apnea and cyanosis instead. The disease is most often diagnosed via laboratory tests, especially detection of B. pertussis in bacterial culture. However, as test results may take time to obtain, treatment should be initiated as soon as clinical suspicion of pertussis arises. Subsequent management includes hospitalization of high-risk patients (e.g., infants) and antibiotic therapy with macrolides. These may lessen the length and severity of the disease if administered early, while also reducing infectivity and further disease transmission. Macrolides are also the drug of choice for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is recommended for all people with a recent history of exposure to pertussis. PEP is administered regardless of the individual immunization status, as both vaccination and prior infection may shorten the disease course, but do not provide full immunity.


  • Typically a childhood disease (particularly children aged < 1 year); however, older patients are increasingly affected. [1][2]
  • High rate of infections in newborns: Tdap vaccine is recommended for pregnant women between weeks 27 and 36 of gestation. [3][2]

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


  • Pathogen: Bordetella pertussis is a gram‑negative, obligate aerobic coccobacillus.
  • Transmission: airborne droplet (through coughing); direct contact with oral or nasal secretions
  • Infectivity
  • Incubation period: on average 7–10 days (range 4–21 days)

References: [2]



Catarrhal stage (1–2 weeks)

  • Nonspecific symptoms similar to an upper respiratory infection (mild cough, watery nasal discharge, rarely low-grade fever)
  • Possibly conjunctivitis

Paroxysmal stage (2–6 weeks)

  • Intense paroxysmal coughing (often occurring at night)
    • Followed by a deep and loud inhalation or high-pitched whooping sound
    • Accompanied by tongue protrusion , gagging, and struggling for breath
    • Possibly accompanied by cyanosis
    • Increases in frequency and severity throughout the stage
    • Followed by the expulsion of phlegm or posttussive vomiting (risk of dehydration)
  • Potential bleeding of the conjunctiva, petechiae, and venous congestion
  • Infants (< 6 months) may only develop apnea and not the characteristic cough.

Convalescent stage (weeks to months)

  • Progressive reduction of symptoms
  • Coughing attacks may persist over several weeks before resolving

The typical whooping cough manifests mainly in children aged 6 months to 5 years. The individual stages of the disease may be indistinguishable in young infants and adults.

Catarrhal stage manifests with Coryza, while the Paroxysmal stage manifests with Posttussive vomiting and whooPing cough.

References: [6][7]


A presumptive diagnosis of pertussis may be made based on clinical history and findings. However, if possible, laboratory tests should be performed to confirm the diagnosis.

History [7]

  • Clinical diagnosis possible in patients with a cough lasting ≥ 2 weeks and at least one of the following symptoms:
  • Inquire about immunization history and possible contact with infectious persons.

Laboratory tests [8][9]

  • Blood count: lymphocyte-predominant leukocytosis (50,000–60,000/μL) that corresponds with disease severity
  • Pathogen detection (to confirm the diagnosis)
    • Culture (gold standard) or PCR: samples from deep nasopharyngeal aspiration or posterior nasopharyngeal swab
    • Serology: unsuitable for early diagnosis because antibody detection (IgA, IgG, IgM) first occurs after a period of 2–4 weeks

As B. pertussis only grows on respiratory epithelium, blood cultures are always negative.

Differential diagnoses

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.


General approach [10]

  • Early initiation of treatment, especially in high-risk patients (e.g., infants), while confirmatory laboratory tests are pending
  • Hospitalization and monitoring: infants < 4 months; severe cases (e.g., respiratory distress, cyanosis, apnea, inability to feed)
  • Oxygen administration with humidification
  • Increased fluid intake and nutritional support
  • If necessary, sedation

Medical therapy [11][12]


References: [13][14]

We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.


  • In children > 3 months: very good; lengthy convalescence, but full recovery
  • In children < 3 months: mortality 1–3%, particularly due to apnea
  • Increased risk for complications
    • Premature infants
    • Children < 6 months
    • People with underlying cardiac, pulmonary, neurologic, or neuromuscular disease

References: [10]


Immunization [2][15][16]

Post-exposure prophylaxis [18][19]

  • Choice of antibiotics identical to treatment recommendations (see “Therapy” above)
  • Administered to household and close contacts of infected people (especially people at risk of developing complications or close contacts of high-risk individuals; see “Complications” above)
  • Administered regardless of immunization status
  • Isolation
    • Required for 5 days after initiation of antibiotic therapy
    • Without antibiotic treatment: minimum of 3 weeks after the onset of first symptoms

Pertussis is a notifiable disease. [20]