Sneezing Releases A Cloud Of Buoyant Gas (And Snot)

Scientists have discovered that the cloud of gas released with a sneeze helps mucus droplets travel much, much further than they previously thought.

Why It's Important

In the past, studies had estimated the distance a sneeze travels based on the droplets alone. A study in 2014 turned those estimates on their head. It showed that the cloud of gas released after a sneeze keeps mucus droplets airborne for much greater distances—we're talking five to 200 times further. The cloud can even carry small droplets upward into a room's ventilation system, leading to the possibility of infection for people elsewhere in the building. Before this research, scientists had also assumed that large mucus droplets traveled farther than smaller ones, given their added momentum. The cloud, however, shows that's not the case.

Smart Graphic

Why You Should Care

You know you should cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. But if you're like most people, you're only aware of the droplets that might land on the people immediately around you. The traveling power of the gas cloud you produce should give you a much stronger incentive to use your hand, elbow, or tissue the next time you feel a sneeze coming on.

Editors' Picks: Our Favorite Videos About Sneezing

Watch Sneezes In Slow-Mo

"If you forget the fact that it is a sneeze, it's actually a pretty beautiful process." Okay, Dr. Bourouriba.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Dr. Lydia Bourouiba used fluid mechanics to analyze the physical process of sneezing. 01:25

  2. When you sneeze, a "turbulent multiphase cloud" buoys the mucus droplets that you release. 02:14

  3. The multiphase cloud released after a sneeze can carry germs up through a room and into the ventilation system. 03:37

Why Do We Sneeze?

Find out what exactly is going on to cause such an outburst.

Sneezing Can Be Caused By Sunlight Or Sex

But 17 to 35 percent of you already knew that.

Written by Curiosity Staff October 23, 2015

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