Scientists Explain What Actually Happens When You Sneeze

Posted: Feb 13 2016, 9:32pm CST | by , in News | Latest Science News


Scientists Explain What Actually Happens When you Sneeze
Images show the moment right after the onset of sneeze. Credit: Lydia Bourouiba

Sneeze is not a simple spray, it produces a complex fluid cascade. The fluid can cause the spread diseases.

Sneeze is not a simple spray of drops through the nose. It produces a stream of complex fluid which is extremely nasty to explain. 

MIT researchers have used high-speed cameras to record more than 100 sneezes from healthy subjects with an aim to capture the exact moment when sneeze hits the air and produces a spray of droplets. 

Images showed that when a person sneezes, they produce the cascade of fluid which is flung in the air like paint before breaking apart in fragments. Almost every sneeze launches the same amount of fluid in the air but has slight variations. The more elasticity the saliva or fluid has, the more it will travel through the air before falling apart into droplets.

“This line of work is opening the way for us to gain insights into the variability between human subjects, and to determine to what extent the breakup process of mucosalivary fluid gives us information on the inner physiology of the host.” Lydia Bourouiba, one of the researchers involved in the study said.

The current research is based on a previous research that showed that cough and sneezes carry infectious droplets 200 times faster than those that are not connected to each other. This time around, researchers tried to freeze those moments when a person sneezes to determine its explosiveness. 

For the study, researchers positioned three subjects against a black backdrop and tickled their noses to induce sneeze. So when they sneeze, researchers snapped the procedure with two high speed cameras.

When researchers analyzed around 100 sneezes, they found a common pattern in all of them. All exiled fluid was in the form of a balloon which burst into thin fragments before ending up being droplets of different sizes. The more the saliva is sticky, the more fluid tends to stay in the air.

“What we saw was surprising in many ways,” said Bourouiba. "We expected to see droplets coming out fully formed from the respiratory tract. It turns out that it’s not the case at all. This gives us a good baseline to expand our mechanistic understanding of violent expirations.”   

These findings can help researchers understand how to prevent the breakout of infections through the environment and also to identify those individuals who can easily cause to spread different viruses.

Currently, researchers are trying to get a better idea about transmission of seasonal viruses through coughs, sneezes and other modes and how to deal with them in future.

“One of the important goals I have for the lab is to tackle cold and influenza. Sometimes the symptoms are difficult to distinguish. In the coming year, at different cold and influenza seasons, we will be recruiting human subjects whom we can work with to see them in infection and in health,” said Bourouiba.

“There are clear limits to the accuracy of the data acquired via the process and we are trying to have more precise measures of contamination and ranges to root disease control and prevention strategies in the physical sciences.”


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The Author

Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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