Surveillance data on the burden of pertussis in Asian adults are limited. This cross-sectional study evaluated the prevalence of serologically confirmed pertussis in adults with prolonged cough in Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand. Adults (⩾19 years) with cough lasting for ⩾14 days without other known underlying cause were enrolled from outpatient clinics of seven public and/or private hospitals. Single blood samples for anti-pertussis toxin antibodies (anti-PT IgG) were analysed and economic impact and health-related quality of life (EQ-5D) questionnaires assessed. Sixteen (5·13%) of the 312 chronically coughing adults had serological evidence of pertussis infection within the previous 12 months (anti-PT IgG titre ⩾62·5 IU/ml). Three of them were teachers. Longer duration of cough, paroxysms (75% seroconfirmed, 48% non-seroconfirmed) and breathlessness/chest pain (63% seroconfirmed, 36% non-seroconfirmed) were associated with pertussis (P < 0·04). Of the seroconfirmed patients, the median total direct medical cost per pertussis episode in public hospitals (including physician consultations and/or emergency room visits) was US$13 in Malaysia, US$83 in Taiwan (n = 1) and US$26 in Thailand. The overall median EQ-5D index score of cases was 0·72 (range 0·42–1·00). Pertussis should be considered in the aetiology of adults with a prolonged or paroxysmal cough, and vaccination programmes considered.