MIT study finds sneezes propel germs much farther than was thought

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 9:53pm


That dainty handkerchief you use to cover up sneezes should be considered more of a battle shield, after new research shows that sneezes release violent gas clouds with the ability to spread germs farther than previously calculated.

Coughs and sneezes release a cloud of invisible gas that extends the range of droplets released as much as five to 200 times, according to the study, "Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing", conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and published in Journal of Fluid Mechanics.

The researchers used high-speed imaging of coughs and sneezes, combined with laboratory simulations and mathematical modelling, to conclude that small droplets emitted during a sneeze actually travel farther than the larger ones, as commonly believed.

Given the findings, researchers suggest architects and engineers re-examine the design of workplaces and hospitals and air circulation on airliners to reduce the chances of illness being transmitted.

The idea of sneezes releasing gas clouds makes sense to Sylvia Suarez-Ponce, infection prevention practitioner at Loyola University Medical Centre near Chicago.

Suarez-Ponce regularly cautions people to sneeze into a tissue whenever possible. Hand washing and discarding the tissue immediately afterward was also recommended to prevent the spread of disease, she said.

"When people smoke, they blow it into the air and it travels. If you see it like that, with that force and the wind, you can see it blowing out," she said. "Think of that as a sneeze."

Even if you were not ill, you might be a carrier of viruses that could be transmitted through the cloud, Suarez-Ponce said. Sneezing or coughing into the crook of your arm was the second-best way to stop germs spreading.