Pardon my ‘sneeze cloud’: Research sheds light on disease transmission

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Boston – In the quest to better understand how disease is transmitted, researchers recently had an “aha moment” from an achoo.

Sneezes have long been linked to the spread of infectious diseases, but researchers were unsure how far sneezes could spread pathogens or why some people can spread viruses more effectively than others.

In research presented Nov. 23 at the American Physical Society’s 68th Annual Meeting of the Division of Fluid Dynamics, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described how droplets are formed within a “sneeze cloud.”

Using high-speed cameras of people sneezing, researchers discovered that droplets – rather than forming and distributing evenly at the exit of the mouth – are instead created within a high-propulsion sneeze cloud, according to an APS press release. These droplets, which could carry viruses, undergo a complex formation process that continues through the air after the sneeze leaves a person’s lungs and lips.

Study author and MIT assistant professor Lydia Bourouiba said the research – which is scheduled to be published in the journal Experiments in Fluids – will help in the design of public health control and prevention policies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following tips to help prevent the spread of germs:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
  • Throw used tissues away.
  • Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.