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The Science of Sneezing as Captured by New MIT Research

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The Science of Sneezing as Captured by New MIT Research

We’re still in the midst of flu season, and we’ve all heard it’s best to sneeze into a tissue or your elbow. The flu virus is passed from one person to another through fluids from the mouth and nose. When we sneeze and cough, those droplets go into the air.

Recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is highlighting even more proof of why it’s a good idea to stifle those sneezes. The researchers studied the physics behind sneezing with a high-speed camera. The team captured 100 sneezes from three healthy people, inducing the sneezes by tickling the subjects’ noses. 

Ultimately, the team determined that sneezes are more complex than once thought. The researchers identified a common pattern: immediately after exiting the mouth, the fluid forms a wide sheet that balloons with the expelled air. As the sneeze travels, the balloon bursts into thin, threadlike pieces that ultimately fall to the ground. 

Researchers then watched to see how far those droplets traveled to better understand how germs and disease spread through a population. As you can see from the photo, one sneeze captured on camera traveled 70 centimeters, or just over two feet. MIT is setting up a new lab space to continue similar experiments in hopes of better tackling the spread of colds and flu.

Credits
From the paper, “Visualization of sneeze ejecta: steps of fluid fragmentation leading to respiratory droplets,” by B. E. Scharfman, A. H. Techet, J. W. M. Bush, L. Bourouiba.