There is increasing evidence that pertussis occurs frequently in adults, but there is limited information on the clinical course of this disease beyond childhood. A household contact study on the efficacy of an acellular pertussis vaccine was used to study the symptoms of pertussis in adults. Among 257 patients with pertussis identified in 121 families during a two-year period in one study center with a low whole-cell pertussis-vaccine uptake, 79 (30.7%) were adults, aged 19-83 years (mean age: 36 years) with a 1:1.8 male to female ratio. Ninety-one percent of the adults suffered from coughing (mean duration: 54 days), and in 80% this cough lasted > or = 21 days. Whoops were rare (8%), whereas cough followed by vomiting and/or choking (53%) and cough disturbing sleep (52%) were common. This is the first report to describe sweating attacks as symptom of pertussis (14%). Pharyngeal symptoms (37%), influenza-like symptoms (30%), sneezing attacks (22%), hoarseness (18%), sinus pain (16%) and headaches (14%) were also observed. Various complications were seen in 23% of the patients. In order to minimize the spread of the organism, microbiological diagnostics should be vigorously applied to all symptomatic contacts of a patient with pertussis but also to all patients with long lasting cough-irrespective of age.