The next time you're about to sneeze or cough, be sure to bury your face in the crook of your arm to block the billowing gas cloud that's about to shoot out. A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds that, along with disease-carrying droplets, sneezes and coughs emit an invisible gas that keeps those mucus globs suspended in the air, helping them to travel 200 times farther than previously thought.
The MIT researchers discovered this gas cloud using high-speed imaging of sneezes and coughs, along with mathematical modeling and simulations. "According to the previous physical picture of sneezes and coughs, no droplets travel more than a couple of meters," says John Bush, professor of applied mathematics at MIT and co-author of the study. "Our revised model of sneezes and coughs shows us that smaller droplets have their range increased considerably and can generally span an entire room," Bush says.
This gas cloud discovery means we're at much greater risk of catching infectious diseases from others than originally thought. Bush says you can definitely get sick just by being in the same room as someone who sneezes or coughs, even if you stay several yards away.
According to Bush, the best way to squelch the spread of germs is to sneeze or cough into your elbow, rather than your hands, which aren't big enough blockers. "The goal should be to disrupt the gas cloud," he says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends sneezing or coughing into a tissue and then throwing it away immediately.