Coughs And Sneezes

As the year moves into the middle of spring in the northern hemisphere the coughing and sneezing hasn’t abated. We’re not out of the woods with viruses, whether the common cold or flu, but we are also getting our regular pollen doses Too early for grass around here, but we do have a lot of pine trees, which are wind pollinated.

So coughs and sneezes are exploding round us, but we do have government recommendations. We should cough into our elbow. That is now our preferred method. Handkerchiefs are so last century. Shirtsleeves backed by the inside of an elbow joint is much more efficient, at least that is the knowledge handed down from wise government officials.

With eager teams of scientists at large, the cough capture problem is one that has been begging for quantification. A team, Tang et al from the National U of Singapore, have tackled the airflow dynamics of the aerosols ejected into the air by coughs from healthy men and women (1).

They found that women didn’t put as much effort into coughing as men. The average for women was a cough velocity between 2.2-5 m/s with a range of less than half a meter, while men could up the velocity to between 3.2-14 m/s which gave a range of up to two-thirds of a meter.

With the shirtsleeve/elbow in place, the airflow was bifurcated and the range minimized although the velocities were not always changed very much. Short sleeves can be different from long sleeves, but how much wasn’t clear. Of course the change of direction would help to capture the larger aerosol droplets, but the smaller ones could still drift downwind.

It doesn’t look like we have a sure-fire solution to the problem of elevator coughs and sneezes. We’ll have to keep relying on our immune system.


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