|Cold and flu pathogens may stay airborne for long |
distances after a sneeze or a cough, researchers say.
That's right: A novel study by MIT researchers shows that coughs and sneezes have associated gas clouds that keep their potentially infectious droplets aloft over much greater distances than previously realized.
"When you cough or sneeze, you see the droplets, or feel them if someone sneezes on you," says John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at MIT, and co-author of a new paper on the subject.
"But you don't see the cloud, the invisible gas phase. The influence of this gas cloud is to extend the range of the individual droplets, particularly the small ones."
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 ï¿½ 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 Lydia Bourouiba, an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and another co-author of the study.
The paper, "Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing," was published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.
It is co-written by Bourouiba, Bush, and Eline Dehandschoewercker, a graduate student at ESPCI ParisTech, a French technical university, who previously was a visiting summer student at MIT, supported by the MIT-France program.
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.
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."
The MIT researchers are now developing additional tools and studies to extend our knowledge of the subject. For instance, given air conditions in any setting, researchers can better estimate the reach of a given expelled pathogen.
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