Last edited 12/2021 and last reviewed 03/2022

Pertussis (or whooping cough) is a bacterial disease caused by the gram negative organism Bordetella pertussis (1,2)

  • It is an upper respiratory tract infection with a characteristic, paroxysmal - whooping – cough.
  • The organism is found in the back of the throat of an infected person (3).
  • Bordetella parapertussis can also be responsible in some cases and is not preventable with presently available vaccines (1,2).

Transmission of the disease is from human to human by droplets (1).

  • It is a highly contagious disease with close direct contact with an infected person resulting in transmission of the disease (1).
    • Up to 90% of household contacts develops the disease (2).
  • Traditionally, droplet transmission has been accepted as occurring within 3 feet of the infected patient but recent studies have suggested that droplets can be dispersed to a distance of 6 feet (1.9 metres) during coughing.

The Chinese refer to whooping cough as the 100 day cough; this description gives the parents some idea of what to expect.

A positive history of pertussis vaccination does not preclude the diagnosis - the vaccination only confers 95% protection. Also, maternal antibody does not appear to confer any significant protection from infection.

In England and Wales, pertussis is a notifiable disease (diagnosis made on clinical ground and laboratory confirmation is not required) (2,3).