The object of this work was to test the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for demonstration of Bordetella pertussis (BP) in nasopharyngeal secretions. The method was applied to patients with recently diagnosed pertussis, as verified by BP culture. In order to test the sensitivity and specificity of PCR for the diagnosis of BP, we used known concentrations of BP, Bordetella parapertussis and Bordetella bronchiseptica in aqueous solutions. PCR was furthermore carried out on species of bacteria that might be isolated from the nasopharynx. The applicability of PCR to patient specimens was tested in 25 patients in whose nasopharyngeal secretions BP had been demonstrated after 4-7 days of culture. The detection limit of PCR in aqueous solution was 1-2 BP bacteria per reaction tube. PCR was 100% specific for BP, showing no response with other Bordetella species or other bacteria known to colonize the nasopharynx. Of 25 patient specimens, 16 were PCR-positive 4-7 days after the positive primary culture had been established; only 5 out of 13 patient specimens were positive by repeated conventional nasopharyngeal culture at that time. We conclude that PCR is a possible alternative to culture for the demonstration of BP, as PCR is considerably faster than culture and might be more sensitive.