The Loh Down On Science

Traveling Germs

Some germs just want to get out and see the world!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

In the past, we’ve told you how sneeze droplets in office cubicles fly up in the air and rain back down on the sneezer.  Ew.  But that’s not the end of the flying-germ story.  Sorry.

So says a new study from MIT.

Researcher John Bush explains that we can see, or feel, the large droplets from a cough or sneeze.  What we don't see is the gas phase of the sneeze.  That's a cloud of air and moisture that can push smaller droplets of germs 5- to 200-times farther than larger droplets!  Yuck!

It had been thought that larger mucus droplets flew farther because they had more momentum.  That was before the MIT lab's high-speed imaging of coughs and sneezes.  It shows that the bouyant cloud allows smaller drops to be swept around and resuspended by eddies.  So they can stay airborne while the more noticeable large droplets fall by the wayside.

Would it be wrong to call these results “cloudy?”  I don't think so.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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