How coughs and sneezes float farther than you think
That's right: A novel study by
"When you cough or sneeze, you see the droplets, or feel them if someone sneezes on you," says
Indeed, the study finds, the smaller droplets that emerge in a cough or sneeze may travel five to 200 times further than they would if those droplets simply moved as groups of unconnected particles — which is what previous estimates had assumed. The tendency of these droplets to stay airborne, resuspended by gas clouds, means that ventilation systems may be more prone to transmitting potentially infectious particles than had been suspected.
With this in mind, architects and engineers may want to re-examine the design of workplaces and hospitals, or air circulation on airplanes, to reduce the chances of airborne pathogens being transmitted among people.
"You can have ventilation contamination in a much more direct way than we would have expected originally," says
The paper, "Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing," was published in the
Smaller drops, longer distances
The researchers used high-speed imaging of coughs and sneezes, as well as laboratory simulations and mathematical modeling, to produce a new analysis of coughs and sneezes from a fluid-mechanics perspective. Their conclusions upend some prior thinking on the subject. For instance: Researchers had previously assumed that larger mucus droplets fly farther than smaller ones, because they have more momentum, classically defined as mass times velocity.
That would be true if the trajectory of each droplet were unconnected to those around it. But close observations show this is not the case; the interactions of the droplets with the gas cloud make all the difference in their trajectories. Indeed, the cough or sneeze resembles, say, a puff emerging from a smokestack.
"If you ignored the presence of the gas cloud, your first guess would be that larger drops go farther than the smaller ones, and travel at most a couple of meters," Bush says. "But by elucidating the dynamics of the gas cloud, we have shown that there's a circulation within the cloud i1/2 the smaller drops can be swept around and resuspended by the eddies within a cloud, and so settle more slowly. Basically, small drops can be carried a great distance by this gas cloud while the larger drops fall out. So you have a reversal in the dependence of range on size."
Specifically, the study finds that droplets 100 micrometers i1/2 or millionths of a meter i1/2 in diameter travel five times farther than previously estimated, while droplets 10 micrometers in diameter travel 200 times farther. Droplets less than 50 micrometers in size can frequently remain airborne long enough to reach ceiling ventilation units.
A cough or sneeze is a "multiphase turbulent buoyant cloud," as the researchers term it in the paper, because the cloud mixes with surrounding air before its payload of liquid droplets falls out, evaporates into solid residues, or both.
"The cloud entrains ambient air into it and continues to grow and mix," Bourouiba says. "But as the cloud grows, it slows down, and so is less able to suspend the droplets within it. You thus cannot model this as isolated droplets moving ballistically."
Ready for a close-up
"An important feature to characterize is the pathogen footprint," Bush says. "Where does the pathogen actually go? The answer has changed dramatically as a result of our revised physical picture."
Bourouiba's continuing research focuses on the fluid dynamics of fragmentation, or fluid breakup, which governs the formation of the pathogen-bearing droplets responsible for indoor transmission of respiratory and other infectious diseases. Her aim is to better understand the mechanisms underlying the epidemic patterns that occur in populations.
"We're trying to rationalize the droplet size distribution resulting from the fluid breakup in the respiratory tract and exit of the mouth," she says. "That requires zooming in close to see precisely how these droplets are formed and ejected."
Keywords for this news article include: Airborne Disease,
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