There’s Something in the Air to Sneeze About!

Having year-round allergies, I tend to blow my nose often. I have been told it sounds like a moose, a boat horn, or a crop duster. About half of the time, the honking is preceded by sneezes, either one or multiples. In the middle of cold and flu season now, sneezes are everywhere you go.

A sneeze is a reflex reaction when receptors in the nose detect irritants. An irritant can be a certain smell like perfume, a particulate like smoke, pollen from plants, or pet dander. Sometimes cold air or sunlight can trigger sneezes. Once the receptors detect the irritant, the brain receives a signal and the body responds involuntarily.

The reaction can be violent, involving your neck, chest, abdomen, and diaphragm, preceded by a deep inhale just before. Sneezes can travel as fast as 100 miles per hour. Some people get injured from sneezing too hard, maybe break a rib.

The purpose of sneezing is cleansing the nose from irritants. The more the sneezes, the more likely the invader is still there. Sneezing resets the environment in the nose, trapping the inhaled particles in the mucus.

It was thought that sneezed out droplets traveled only a couple of feet. A recent video by MIT of a sneeze shows that droplets spread much farther than previously thought. The largest droplets land three to six feet away. The smaller droplets are trapped in the turbulent puff cloud, which can travel 19 to 26 feet in a couple minutes.

Your best defense against contamination to avoid getting sick around someone who is already sick is to stay at least three feet away from them. We used to be told to cover our mouths with our hands when a sneeze is imminent, but now health professionals recommend sneezing into a tissue or our elbow.
Shah, Allie. “Achoo! The distance germs can travel is nothing to sneeze at.” Variety. Star Tribune, 8 Feb 2017. Web. 9 Feb 2017.

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