Household contacts of primary pertussis cases were evaluated. Infection was determined by culture, direct fluorescent antibody assay, and serological criteria. Agglutinin titers and values of ELISA IgG and IgA antibodies to lymphocytosis-promoting factor, filamentous hemagglutinin, and pertactin were determined. In 39 households 255 subjects were exposed; 114 remained well (group 1), 53 had mild illness (group 2), and 88 had pertussis (group 3). The infection rates were 46% (group 1), 43% (group 2), and 80% (group 3). In a subgroup of subjects seen within 14-28 days of exposure, it was found that none with clinical pertussis had a value of IgG antibody to pertactin in acute-phase sera of > or = 50 ELISA units (EU) per mL or an agglutinin titer of > 256. Of the primary cases, 53% were > or = 13 years of age. These data point out the importance of Bordetella pertussis infections in adolescents and adults as a source of infection in young children. Our subgroup data suggest that high values of antibody to pertactin and high agglutinin titers may be predictive of protection against clinical pertussis.