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.