Coughing Contagion?

As we slowly approach the fall season, Penn State has become vulnerable to a variety of illnesses: the common cold, flu, stomach flu, and cough. Coughing has almost become synonymous to breathing in large lecture classes- one person coughs, then another, and another…soon enough every few seconds that pass by accompanies an eruption of coughing from various sections of the lecture. Personally, I was a victim of the “whooping cough” at the start of the semester, which came as a terrible inconvenience. While I was sitting in class, I felt the uncontrollable urge to cough every minute, which was uncomfortable for me and the unfortunate people sitting next to me. Something I noticed in particular was that the sound of someone else coughing in the lecture hall prompted me to start coughing. While I initially believed this was just a reaction of my own body, I soon realized that coughing is almost “contagious”. One person’s cough begins a string of coughing, and it seems to spiral into eruptions of coughing from all sides of the room. So, is coughing really this contagious? Does the sound of coughing initiate a certain switch in the brain that causes an individual to start coughing? Could it be that coughing is as contagious as the “yawn effect” (one person yawning causes another person to yawn almost immediately)?


According to the World Osteopathic Health Organization , whooping cough, a more severe case of the common cough, is one of the most contagious and highly communicable diseases within a college enviornment. Not only is whooping cough a bacterial infection, but it is also highly contagious among individuals. The symptoms of whooping cough include (but are not limited to): difficulty breathing, severe sore throat, continuous coughing, loss of vocal communication, and soreness in the ribs/chest due to severe coughing. Since it is such a highly contagious illness, bacteria is easily transmitted through the act of coughing. In college enviornments, individuals are more vulnerable to the symptoms of whooping cough, especially since students are in such close proximity of one another.


The “contagious” factor of coughing stems from a variety of reasons. First, the theory of psychologial mirroring, described by NBC News, is a possible reason for the contagious nature of coughing. As humans, we are prone to the social cues and behavior of other individuals. For example, one person yawning may elicit a yawn from another person. Similarly, laughing, crying, and a wide range of other emotions can be seen as having a “mirroring” effect on individuals. One theory towards the contagious nature of coughing is that humans tend to mirror actions of others. Similar to the mirroring of emotions, individuals may hear the sound of coughing, which prompts them to act on the tickle in their throat, or to simply clear it. Additionally, if you’re sick to begin with, the sound of coughing will  elicit a response from your body to remove the “toxin”, hence, the coughing.

So, what’s the bottom line? Is coughing contagious or not? Surprisingly, according to Medicine Net, the cough itself is not contagious. The real culprit that’s being transmitted is the pathogen in the cough. When individuals cough, pathogens are spread into the surrounding environment initiating the transmission of bacteria. If there were to be a clinical trial that measured the contagious nature of coughing (highly unlikely due to the lack of substantial independent/dependent variables), a hard endpoint conclusion could be the following: the act of coughing is not contagious. Pathogens, found in the airborne fluid that is emitted by coughing, are the true transmitters of the virus.

As college students, we are most vulnerable to getting sick, especially at this time of the year. Here are a few tips on how to combat sickness and stay healthy (brought to you by Rutgers Student Health Services):

-Drink lots of water: stay hydrated and allow your body to replenish

-Eat breakfast and don’t skip out on meals

-Don’t use boredom or stress as an excuse for overeating

-Be hygenic (shower daily, wash before you eat, brush your teeth)

-Exercise; go on a run, bike, take a trip to the gym, walk to classes rather than taking the bus

-Limit late night food trips and junk food

-Vitamins are your best friends

-Take a trip to the University Health Services for an annual-check up

-Maintain a consistent sleep schedule (I know-four hour naps are tempting!) and avoid pulling  all-nighters in a row

-Wash YOUR HANDS (just please, do it)

…and if you ever find yourself a victim of the whooping cough, find comfort in the fact that you’re not alone…just ask the other 50 kids in your lecture class that are struggling to contain their cough.




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About omz5012

Olivia Zhang is a junior at Pennsylvania State University from McLean VA. She is currently in the Smeal College of Business, majoring in Supply Chain & Information Systems with a minor in Information Systems Management. Olivia is an extremely motivated individual and works tirelessly to get the job done. When faced with multiple tasks, she sets short term goals for herself until she is able to accomplish them. She enjoys communicating with others and collaborating on group projects and business endeavors. As an undergraduate Supply Chain & Information Systems professional who possess the qualities of a team player, creative visionary, and goal-oriented leader , I am looking for experiences that will propel my knowledge and expertise in the business market's most vital supply chains.

4 thoughts on “Coughing Contagion?

  1. Zachary Cope

    What a great post! I found this blog to be very relatable because ever since I’ve been here, all i have done is cough. It seems like every morning and night I find myself coughing every 30 seconds or sometimes even non stop. It’s so annoying in the lecture halls to hear people cough every 5 seconds and I hate that I am a part of that group. Sometimes I try to hold my cough in for as long as I can, to the point where it gets uncomfortable, because I don’t want to annoy the people sitting next to me or around me. I also find it very annoying and distracting when you have to take an exam in a room full of kids who are coughing non stop, but that’s my own problem. I loved that you made a list of ways to prevent whooping cough from spreading, I will definitely be following that list right away. To anyone who is trying to recover from a cold or trying to stay healthy, here’s a link to a list of 101 ways to further stay healthy in college:

  2. jgb5274

    This blog caught my attention because it is so relatable and real. Coming into Penn State I had a cough and it was the worst thing because not only are you trying to get better yourself, you have to make sure you are really careful and do not give it to anyone else. Ever since then I have relied on vitamins, I take six a night and swear by them. I truly believe they keep me from getting sick because I have been in many situations where my roommate or classmates were extremely sick and I have yet to catch it (Knock on wood**). Here is a link of different vitamins and their purpose in preventing sickness and keeping us healthy:

  3. John Carney

    Hey Olivia, this blog is great! I love this article so much because I have always been curios if this was just me or not. A lot of times whenever someone coughs close to me or I hear coughing i tend to break in a coughing epidemic. Even when i think about coughing I tend to cough more but thought that it was just me and that it was in my head. I can really relate to this article because, for example, in my economics class i have scene this exact scenario take place. There are 670 people in my econ class and a majority of us have this “common cold” or “whooping cough” so when one person coughs, the entire lecture breaks out into a disease filled room where everyones coughing. This coughing really does have that contagious “yawning effect”. I found an article on why these contagious occurrences happen:
    This article is really interesting and gives more information on this contagious occurrence.

  4. Jillian Nicole Beitter

    I think this is a really interesting article. Lately in class, teachers have had to actually stop working because it had gotten so loud with everyone coughing. This blog automatically made me think of when we yawn. I find it common that every time a person around us yawns, it triggers us to yawn as well. It made me wonder if it was just chance or if there was a reason why one’s yawn can trigger another. I did some research and found this link . It pretty much explains the science behind it, and also has a pretty cool video I think everyone should check out. 🙂

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