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Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious acute respiratory infection, caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The disease is characterised by a severe cough, which can last two months or even longer.

Humans are the only reservoir. Infected adults usually have only mild symptoms, but can shed bacteria for weeks. Following infection (by inhalation of droplets), susceptible individuals develop symptoms after an incubation period of about 10 days. The typical paroxysmal cough is usually seen in young children. Babies less than six months old may not cough, but they manifest dyspnea and paroxysmal asphyxia and are the most likely to die of the disease unless they receive suitable treatment.

Affected children are also exposed to complications such as pneumonia, atelectasia, weight loss, hernia, seizures, encephalopathy (probably due to hypoxia). Antibiotics may reduce the duration of the disease, especially if administered in its early stages. 

The disease is preventable by vaccination; an appropriate number of doses must be administered in order to confer immunity. In Europe the vaccine is given in combination with tetanus and diphtheria and/or others; vaccination should be received during childhood and in adolescences / adulthood as recommended by national authorities.


In addition to Bordetella pertussis, whooping cough can be caused by three other Bordetella species – B. parapertussis, B. holmesii, and B. bronchiseptica, which most often cause less severe disease in adults as well as in infants. Stricly speaking, the term “pertussis” should only be used when Bordetella pertussis is responsible for the disease.

© European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) 2005 - 2017