Bordetella pertussis is the aetiologic agent of whooping cough, a common cause of severe respiratory illness in children and prolonged mild cough in adults. To understand some of the reasons for differences in clinical symptoms between adults and children, we measured B. pertussis DNA loads in nasopharyngeal swabs (NPS) from 19 adults and 40 children (including 14 infants) by quantitative IS481 real-time PCR. All cases had been pre-diagnosed with the B. pertussis-specific loop-mediated isothermal amplification method. The mean PCR threshold cycles for adult and child NPS were 34.9 and 27.1, respectively, indicating a significantly lower B. pertussis DNA load in adults than in children (p <0.001). Moreover, adults had very low DNA loads during both early and later stages of the disease. When corresponding bacterial loads in NPS were calculated for B. pertussis Tohama cells using a standard curve, the mean number of bacterial cells taken with a rayon-tipped swab from an adult, older child and infant was estimated to be 320 (95% CI 120-910), 2.1 × 10⁴(95% CI 5.3 × 10³ to 8.3 × 10⁴) and 1.1 × 10⁶ cells (95% CI 1.2 × 10⁵ to 8.9 × 10⁶), respectively. This indicates that the B. pertussis load in NPS is closely correlated with patient age. Our observations suggest that adult pertussis is characterized by a lower bacterial load in the nasopharynx, resulting in milder symptoms and negative cultures.
© 2010 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2010 European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.