Clinical Characteristics of Pertussis-Associated Cough in Adults and Children: A Diagnostic Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Chest. 2017 Aug;152(2):353-367. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2017.04.186. Epub 2017 May 13.


Background: Pertussis (whooping cough) is a highly infective cause of cough that causes significant morbidity and mortality. Existing case definitions include paroxysmal cough, whooping, and posttussive vomiting, but diagnosis can be difficult. We determined the diagnostic accuracy of clinical characteristics of pertussis-associated cough.

Methods: We systematically searched CINAHL, Embase, Medline, and SCI-EXPANDED/CPCI-S up to June 2016. Eligible studies compared clinical characteristics in those positive and negative for Bordetella pertussis infection, confirmed by laboratory investigations. Two authors independently completed screening, data extraction, and quality and bias assessments. For each characteristic, RevMan was used to produce descriptive forest plots. The bivariate meta-analysis method was used to generate pooled estimates of sensitivity and specificity.

Results: Of 1,969 identified papers, 53 were included. Forty-one clinical characteristics were assessed for diagnostic accuracy. In adult patients, paroxysmal cough and absence of fever have a high sensitivity (93.2% [CI, 83.2-97.4] and 81.8% [CI, 72.2-88.7], respectively) and low specificity (20.6% [CI, 14.7-28.1] and 18.8% [CI, 8.1-37.9]), whereas posttussive vomiting and whooping have low sensitivity (32.5% [CI, 24.5-41.6] and 29.8% [CI, 8.0-45.2]) and high specificity (77.7% [CI, 73.1-81.7] and 79.5% [CI, 69.4-86.9]). Posttussive vomiting in children is moderately sensitive (60.0% [CI, 40.3-77.0]) and specific (66.0% [CI, 52.5-77.3]).

Conclusions: In adult patients, the presence of whooping or posttussive vomiting should rule in a possible diagnosis of pertussis, whereas the lack of a paroxysmal cough or the presence of fever should rule it out. In children, posttussive vomiting is much less helpful as a clinical diagnostic test.

Keywords: clinical decision-making; cough; infectious disease.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bordetella pertussis
  • Child
  • Cough / diagnosis*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Whooping Cough / diagnosis*