Sneezes are everywhere during this, the height of cold and flu season. The chorus of achoos in offices, on buses and in homes often sends bystanders scrambling to get out of the line of germ-spreading fire.
But how far away is far enough? A lot farther than you might — or would like to — think.
For a long time, people on the front lines of sneeze science thought that the droplets scattered from a sneeze traveled only a short distance — a couple of feet, perhaps. But a slow-motion video of a sneeze captured last year by MIT researchers uncovered a more troubling truth: Those sneeze particles can go mighty far.
The video shows in gross detail what happens to the liquid mixture that is spewed from a person’s mouth and nose during a sneeze.
The findings, as described in the New England Journal of Medicine, show that the droplets spread farther than previously thought, aided by a swirling puff cloud.
“The largest droplets rapidly settle within [about three to six feet] away from the person,” wrote lead researcher Lydia Bourouiba of MIT’s Fluid Dynamics and Disease Transmission Laboratory.
“The smaller and evaporating droplets are trapped in the turbulent puff cloud, remain suspended,” Bourouiba said, and, over the course of seconds to a few minutes, can travel the dimensions of a room and land up to [19 to 26 feet] away.”
So what, then, is your best defense against contamination from a nearby sneeze cloud?
“You can’t scamper. It’s over before you can move,” said Scott Davies, a Minneapolis physician who specializes in treating respiratory diseases. “It’s up to the person who’s sneezing to prevent this.”
Jeanne Pfeiffer, an expert in infection control and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, recommends giving sneezers some space ahead of time.
“We say distance is a barrier,” she said. “When someone isn’t feeling well but they’re not staying home, we like to keep three feet of distance.”
Sneezes can travel as fast as 100 mph, by some estimates. And the force of a sneeze? Well, that’s nothing to sneeze at, either. Davies said that although it’s extremely rare, some people have been injured from sneezing hard.
“You can break a rib sneezing,” he said.