Sneezing is such a regular part of your day to day life that you rarely stop to think about how the mechanisms behind it work. For example, you knew that sneezes happened fast, but did you know how fast? Air exits your lungs at speeds of 100 miles per hour, and apparently sneezes are much more complex than previously thought.
Viewed differently by different factions, the sneeze can have many functions. For one, it helps clear your airways of unwanted particles. It is also seen as a stress relief mechanism, as some people start sneezing uncontrollably when under pressure. It’s also a way to help you keep breathing when you have allergies.
As it turns out, it’s also a very good way to spread germs and diseases, as it’s not just air that comes speeding out of you when you happen to sneeze. Saliva and mucus are also ever present in what comes out of a sneeze, and they tend to linger around the area for long after the act was committed.
The mechanisms behind the sneeze
To better understand exactly how sneezes work, a team of researchers from MIT engaged in a very interesting, yet gross experiment. By using a couple of high speed cameras, as well as over 100 volunteers, the team reconstructed the entire sneezing process.
What the footage showed can be described in many ways, with “enlightening” and “disgusting” heading the list. As you sneeze, you release a stream of fluid into the air, in the form of bubbles. As the stream is expelled, the bubbles morph into filaments, pretty much like the reverse of what happens in a lava lamp.
And just like in lava lamps, the filaments then begin to destabilize, breaking down, and transforming into a spray of saliva and mucus droplets which hang around in the air for a while before eventually dissipating. This whole process takes less than a fraction of a second.
According to the team of researchers investigating the process, the more mucus in the sneeze, the more it will hand around with any pathogens it might contain.
This is why the team of researchers is very hopeful that by studying how sneezes work they might in fact understand how pathogens are spread via the air, and perhaps come up with ways to prevent large scale epidemics or even outbreaks.
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