Research

Watching a Sneeze

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What does a sneeze look like? You might imagine it as a violent burst of air and a cloud of tiny droplets. But this high-speed video shows, that’s only part of the story. The liquid leaving a sneezer’s mouth and nose is a mixture of saliva and mucus, and in the few hundred milliseconds it takes to expel this air/mucosaliva mixture, there’s not enough time for the liquid to break into droplets. Instead, liquid leaves the mouth as a fluid sheet that breaks into long ligaments.

Because mucosaliva is viscoelastic and non-Newtonian, it does not break down into droplets as quickly as water. Instead, when stretched, the proteins inside the fluid tend to pull back, causing large droplets to form with skinny strands between them – the beads-on-a-string instability. The end result when the ligaments do finally break is more large droplets than one would expect from a fluid like water. Understanding this break-up process and the final distribution of droplet sizes is vital for better understanding the spread of diseases and pathogens.  (Video credit: Bourouiba Research Group; research paper: B. Scharfman et al., PDF)

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