CHICAGO — That dainty handkerchief you use to cover up sneezes should be considered more of a fierce 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 5 to 200 times, according to the study “Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing,” conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers and published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.
The researchers used high-speed imaging of coughs and sneezes, combined with lab simulations and mathematical modeling, to conclude that small droplets emitted during a sneeze actually travel farther than the larger ones, as commonly believed.
Given the findings, researchers suggest that architects and engineers re-examine the design of workplaces and hospitals and air circulation on airplanes 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 Center near Chicago.
Suarez-Ponce regularly cautions people to sneeze into a tissue whenever possible. Hand washing and discarding the tissue immediately afterward is 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 are not sick, you may be a carrier of viruses and bacteria that can be transmitted through the cloud, Suarez-Ponce said.
Sneezing or coughing into the crook of your arm is the second-best way to keep from spreading germs, but another person may then pick up the germs from your clothing, she noted.
“If you’re sick, pretty much stay home. You don’t want to go to the supermarket and spread your germs,” Suarez-Ponce said. “If you do, carry tissue.”