Sneeze and cough generate cloud of invisible gas that propels droplets of infectious material

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Each sneeze, cough or burp generates a cloud of invisible gas that propels droplets of infectious material farther than originally thought, and smaller droplets actually travel farther than larger ones. A new study from MIT researchers published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics says this gas cloud extends the reach of droplets by 5 to 200 times.

"Colds, flu, measles, TB and other airborne diseases can be transmitted through the air by a simple sneeze," says Sylvia Suarez-Ponce, RN, infection control practitioner at Loyola University Health System. "The new study reinforces that sick people need to stay home for the sake of the community."

People also need to improve public behavior when ill. "Many think they are doing the best thing by sneezing into the crook of their arm, or covering their mouth with their hand when they cough," said Suarez-Ponce. "I was at a gathering recently and a woman coughed heavily into her hand. She then shook hands with everyone around her, introducing herself and passing along her germs and infections."

Love thy neighbor, says Suarez-Ponce, and use a tissue for both coughing and sneezing. "Throw the soiled tissue away and then wash your hands really, really well," she says. If you do not have a tissue, the crook of the arm is second-best. Sanitizing hand gel is also acceptable but follow the manufacturer's directions on how much to use to achieve proper disinfection.

Hand hygiene is key to good health, Suarez-Ponce says, yet most people do not clean their hands correctly. "You need to really wet and soap up every part of each hand, the nails, the web between your fingers and the palm," she said. "Keep rubbing and twisting your soapy hands together for 20 seconds, which is the equivalent of singing or humming 'Happy Birthday' twice." Then, she says, rinse thoroughly with clean water and dry completely.

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