A High-Tech Reminder That Sneezes Spread Diseases

Senior man sneezes

Here comes cold and flu season! Did you get your flu shot yet? Getting the flu immunization is the best way to protect ourselves against this potentially serious illness, and to protect seniors and other vulnerable individuals who are at higher risk of complications.

The vaccine doesn't provide 100 percent protection. People older than 65 should ask their doctors about the newer high-dose vaccine, which has been found to offer greater protection for older adults. Studies also show that if an older adult does get the flu, the symptoms tend to be less severe if they've been immunized.

People who come into contact with seniors should be sure to get the shot, to avoid spreading the disease to this vulnerable population. And there are other ways to prevent the spread of flu germs. We should wash our hands often, and stay home if we have the flu or a cold. And of course, says the American Physical Society (APS), we should remember that most germs are spread by "complex, turbulent, highly variable multiphase flows that can suspend and spread potential pathogen-carrying droplets." Didn't quite follow that last part? It's physics talk for a sneeze!

Reporting on a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the APS noted that we don't know as much about how sneezes spread diseases as we think we do! They said, "However commonplace it may be in human life, the sneeze remains something of an enigma, and we are still a long way from understanding the simple sneeze in all its phlegm-flam glory."

In the study, researchers set out to learn more about how coughs and sneezes spread diseases. The team, headed by MIT physicist Lydia Bourouiba, used sophisticated technology to capture images of sneezes in action. They put human test subjects against a black backdrop, tickled their noses to induce a sneeze, and used high-speed cameras to capture images during the fraction of a second that it takes to sneeze.

You might think that a sneeze is just a little puff of air, but Bourouiba's team found that the physics of sneezing is more complicated: "Immediately after exiting the mouth, the exhaled fluid can form a wide sheet that balloons with the simultaneous expelling of air. As it travels through the air, the balloon bursts into thin filaments that eventually separate into individual droplets of various sizes that ultimately fall to the ground or remain suspended in the turbulent cloud." This means that the germs ejected during a sneeze can travel across a room in seconds—and can hover in the air for quite some time.

The researchers hope this information will increase our understanding of the way airborne diseases are spread, and will help architects better design the air circulation systems of hospitals, airplanes, classrooms and other places where airborne illnesses are commonly spread.

The MIT team plans more research. Meanwhile, everyone can do their part to slow the spread of airborne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the best way to keep a cough or sneeze from spreading disease is to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, then put the used tissue in the wastebasket. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not into your hand. And after coughing or sneezing, wash your hands with soap and water. If soap and water aren't available, clean hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. These are all ways to protect vulnerable elders and everyone else.

Photo of a sneeze from MIT

Still not convinced? Do you have a friend or family member who lets those sneezes go with abandon? Have them watch this presentation in which Dr. Bourouiba describes her research and shows some of her videos. You also can read about this research on the MIT website. It's nothing to sneeze at!

Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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