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If Cooties Were Real, What Disease Would They Be?

Okay so we all know that cooties aren't real (besides, we've all been vaccinated sufficiently as kids so we're safe). But if they were real, what disease would cooties be?

These two are definitely about to transfer cooties. Image: wizardhat

We all know that cooties aren’t real. (Besides, we’ve all been vaccinated sufficiently as kids, so we’re safe.) But if they were real, what disease would cooties be?

Well, let’s look at the characteristics of cooties.

First, cooties are passed through physical contact with an infected person, say, Jimmy from math class. So if you touch Jimmy, you’re doomed. Which is what doctors call “transmission by direct contact.” So cooties work something like meningococcal disease, MRSA, plague, strep, SARS, pinkeye, Legionnaire’s disease or leprosy.

Second, cooties are both extremely common and extremely contagious. Just one brush against Jimmy, and you’re definitely going to get infected. While SARS or Legionnaire’s disease are contagious, they’re not THAT contagious—one touch won’t do you in.

Now, the symptoms of those with cooties are unclear. Jimmy has it, but he doesn’t seem sick. So cooties must be a disease with few outward manifestations. Plague and pinkeye are probably out. We could be talking about meningitis, though, a disease that attacks the spinal cord and the central nervous system and causes some vague early symptoms like a stiff neck.

Thankfully, unlike meningitis, cooties is 100% curable and preventable with the cooties shot. Obviously, cooties isn’t really quite like any real disease. But it’s surprisingly close, and according to Real Clear Science, the fact that kids have a concept of cooties is a good thing:

Cooties is a decent, albeit rudimentary, approximation for how disease functions, or as Sue Samuelson put it in The Cooties Complex, “an interesting synthesis of a child’s conception of disease and the modern medical world.” In a way, it allows kids to learn about infectious disease in a semi-sanitary, innocuous manner.

Apart from imitating and resolving anxiety about the grown-up medical world, cooties also exposes children to certain social elements. Chiefly, it gives an excuse for boys and girls to mingle and touch one another in an innocent manner, especially when a game of “cooties tag” breaks out, in which the disease is transferred multiple times in rapid succession between a multitude of participants.

And, of course, eventually we all become immune to cooties. Which is a good thing too.

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

Cootie Catchers Say Lice Reveal Lots About Early Humans
Lice Evolution Tracks the Invention of Clothes

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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