Alert! Coughs and sneezes spread infection faster than we thought

COLD, PREVENTIONI had lunch with a friend the other day and the guy had a coughing fit right at the table. Not good, and it turned me off my Cobb salad– and I hate to leave a good Cobb salad unfinished! But here’s why…

Whenever you’re under the weather and can’t suppress the pressure wave that comes from a cough or sneeze, you may be spreading more germs than you ever imagined. Picture this: Your cough or sneeze is a floating, turbulent cloud no different than the plumes that come out of a smokestack. That’s right: Gross!


New research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reveals that coughs and sneezes actually come complete with their own gas clouds, which help carry potentially infectious droplets over greater distances. The researchers used high-speed imaging of coughs and sneezes, as well as laboratory simulations and mathematical models, in order to analyze coughs and sneezes differently. Their study, entitled “Violent Expiratory Events: Coughing and Sneezing,” was published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics in April.

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Fluids behind the cold and flu

We’ve all seen those droplets coming from our mouth and nose when we cough or sneeze. But have you ever noticed that you can feel those same droplets coming from someone else’s mouth or nose? That’s because whenever a person coughs or sneezes in your general direction, and from a relatively short distance, an invisible gas cloud is formed, helping to suspend the individual droplets in the air. The most tiny ones can travel anywhere between five to 200 times farther than they would if those same droplets moved together as unconnected particles.

And it’s through the infected droplets that colds, sniffles and the flu are spread. Measles, mumps, tuberculosis, strep throat, meningitis and chickenpox, too.

The study’s co-author, John Bush, a MIT applied mathematics professor, says the new findings potentially change the “footprint of disease pathogens.” Which means engineers and architects could look at the design of offices, schools, hospitals and even aircraft a little differently. By reducing this so-called “ventilation contamination,” they can lower the chances of germs being spread.

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Prevention: Use that elbow to cover your mouth


In the meantime, you now have more of a reason to cover your mouth or nose with your elbow whenever you’re feeling sick at work or in public places. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hand; frequently wash your hands with soap and water; avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose; and clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects. Of course, for added measure, you can also get your flu shot.

The way I see it, the more you know to protect your health, the better!


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