A recent MIT study used high-speed video to track vigorous sneeze and coughs allowing us to see them for what they really are, respiratory explosions. Stick around much longer than 60 seconds and you’ll be surrounded by a sneeze nebula. We’re talking about multi-phase, turbulent, buoyant clouds with suspended droplets of various sizes. In other words, a violent sneeze is a microscopic spray of spittle and phlegm issuing forth like a mushroom cloud, sometimes even reaching air vents at ceiling heights within minutes.
The team at MIT created a sneeze fallout model – yes, FALLOUT as in radioactive materials raining down after a nuclear explosion. The model was based on 50 sneezes produced by two people over several days, showing the trajectory of respiratory fluids.
What you are seeing is fluid dynamics at work, specifically mucosalivary fluid fragments. Before this study was conducted, it was assumed that these fragments were formed into droplets inside the respiratory tract and then spewed forth with a sneeze but the footage shows the fluid first passing over the lips as a sheet then extending forward into ligaments and finally breaking off into droplets with the accompanying force of breath.
While the researchers can’t say exactly how much surface area is covered by a sneeze, after all, the force of particle dispersion differs depending on the sneeze, understanding the far reach of sneeze tendrils can better protect us against infectious diseases like measles, SARS, the flu and the common cold, not to mention bolster the mandate that we all practice the vampire sneeze and cough. So, like Dracula, you simply cover your mouth with the crook of your arm thereby containing the spray and limiting exposure because if you don’t do this and you’re sick, you are a biological warhead.
The study from MIT also shows that all that gross stuff that you expel when you sneeze goes up to 200 times farther than previously thought. Former study was assumed because of momentum that the larger mucus droplets spewed forth from your mouth traveled farther than the smaller droplets. MIT utilized mathematical model, simulations and high-speed imaging to increase the accuracy of their research.
Bonus Fact About Sneeze
According to Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychologist, your sneeze says something about your personality. Kitten sneeze might denote introversion while thunderous sneezes could signal extroversion. If you are too shy to sneeze loudly in public – I know the feeling – but you don’t need to hold yourself at home, you are probably an introvert like me.