Pertussis tests are used to detect and diagnose a Bordetella pertussis infection. Early diagnosis and treatment may lessen the severity of symptoms and help limit spread of the disease.
There are several tests that may be used when a pertussis infection is suspected:
Culture – this test has been the "gold standard" for identifying pertussis and is used to diagnose a pertussis infection. The sample is put into nutrient media and the bacteria are grown and identified. Results are reported in one to two weeks.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) – this test amplifies the genetic material of the bacteria in a sample and is available within a couple of days. PCR testing should not be used to diagnose outbreaks of the disease. False positive results may occur when PCR is used to screen people who may have been exposed but have no symptoms of disease.
Direct Fluorescent Antibody (DFA) – this test is not as widely used as it once was. It is less specific and sensitive than the pertussis culture and PCR. However, this method could still be valuable to confirm the identity of bacteria grown in culture.
Antibodies, IgA, IgG, IgM – these blood tests measure the body's immune response to a pertussis infection.
Other tests that may occasionally be ordered include:
Toxin antibodies, IgA, IgG – these blood tests measure the body's immune response to toxins released by B. pertussis.
B. pertussis molecular sub-typing – this test may be ordered not to benefit an individual, but so that health professionals can better understand the strain and severity of the B. pertussis present in a community during an outbreak.
Typically, a pertussis culture and PCR test will both be ordered, as early in the illness as possible. Cultures are less likely to grow the organism 2 to 3 weeks into the illness and will be affected by some antimicrobial agents if the person has been treated.
Since the introduction of PCR testing, the use of DFA testing has significantly decreased. When used, it should be ordered along with a pertussis culture to recover the organism in order to investigate potential outbreaks and perform antimicrobial susceptibility testing.
Pertussis antibody testing is not used frequently. It is ordered to help determine if a person has had a recent pertussis infection. Pertussis IgG antibodies will be present in anyone who has been vaccinated. Pertussis IgM and IgA antibodies will usually only be present a short time after vaccination or infection. These tests may sometimes be ordered to help evaluate and study the spread of pertussis in the community. Rarely, an antibody test may be performed to evaluate the adequacy of a person's immune response to a pertussis vaccine.
Pertussis tests are ordered when a doctor suspects that a person has a Bordetella pertussis infection. A pertussis culture and PCR are performed when someone has symptoms suggestive of pertussis, and as early in the illness as possible (generally within the first 3 weeks).
Symptoms during the first stage of the infection, called the catarrhal stage, may include typical cold symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, mild cough, and/or a low-grade fever. After about 2 weeks, the paroxysmal stage begins and may include symptoms such as:
Frequent severe bouts of coughing, sometimes followed by vomiting
Several rapid coughs followed by a whooping sound as the person inhales; affected adults may cough but not whoop, and infants may have trouble breathing and may choke more than whoop.
These symptoms may last for one or two weeks or persist for a couple of months. During the convalescent stage, the severity of symptoms lessens, with the frequency of coughing gradually decreasing over the next several weeks.
Antibody testing is generally more useful than culture or PCR for detecting an infection later in its course. A single blood sample can be collected 2 to 8 weeks after the start of symptoms, when the level of antibody in the blood is highest. Acute and convalescent samples, collected several weeks apart, are sometimes ordered on a person who has not sought treatment until late in their illness or on an adult who has had a cough for an extended period of time.
A positive culture is diagnostic for a B. pertussis infection, but a negative culture does not rule it out. Culture results are dependent on proper specimen collection and transport, duration of symptoms, when the sample is collected, and prior antimicrobial therapy administered before the culture is taken.
A positive PCR test means that it is likely that the person has pertussis. However, the PCR test may also be positive with other Bordetella species. A negative PCR test means that it is less likely that the person has pertussis but does not rule it out. If there are an insufficient number of organisms in the sample, then they may not be detected. Both culture and PCR tests are less likely to be positive as the illness progresses.
The direct fluorescent antibody test is not as sensitive or specific as other methods. If it is positive, then the person may have pertussis, but this should be confirmed with a culture. A negative direct fluorescent antibody test does not rule out pertussis.
The presence of IgGB. pertussis antibodies may be seen with a recent infection and also after vaccination. A rise in the quantity of IgG B. pertussis antibodies between the acute and convalescent samples and the presence of IgM and IgA antibodies are evidence of a recent pertussis infection.
The pertussis vaccination is given to infants as a series of shots. Those children who have not completed the series of pertussis vaccinations are at a higher risk of becoming infected. Even some people who have been vaccinated may be infected by Bordetella pertussis, but they will tend to have a less severe illness.
Pertussis is treated with antibiotics, which will help to resolve the infection and help stop spread of the disease.
International travelers should be aware that many less developed countries do not have widespread vaccination for pertussis. Infants who have not completed their series of vaccinations and people who have not had a booster vaccination in many years may be at an increased risk of contracting pertussis.
This article was last reviewed on January 10, 2012. | This article was last modified on December 29, 2014.
The review date indicates when the article was last reviewed from beginning to end to ensure that it reflects the most current science. A review may not require any modifications to the article, so the two dates may not always agree.
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