Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, has recently re-emerged as a major public health threat despite high levels of vaccination against the aetiological agent Bordetella pertussis. In this Review, we describe the pathogenesis of this disease, with a focus on recent mechanistic insights into B. pertussis virulence-factor function. We also discuss the changing epidemiology of pertussis and the challenges facing vaccine development. Despite decades of research, many aspects of B. pertussis physiology and pathogenesis remain poorly understood. We highlight knowledge gaps that must be addressed to develop improved vaccines and therapeutic strategies.