Will the sound of a cough forever trigger our generation? Time will tell, but for now, there's nothing more terrifying than hearing someone hack up a lung as they pass by on your morning jog or weekly Publix run. In these coronavirus times, every cough is cause for concern, every sneeze the subject of suspicion.
If you're squeamish about mucus membranes, stop reading now.
For the rest of you, a bit of bad news: Modeling by researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton shows that particles from a heavy cough can travel up to 12 feet.
Droplets from a lighter cough were observed up to nine feet away, according to FAU engineering professors and researchers Manhar Dhanak and Siddhartha Verma.
"In the case of light coughing... the rings appear to travel 1 to 9 feet or more before getting diffused and breaking up," Dhanak states in a press release. "We found that wearing a face mask doesn't stop the particles 100 percent, but it does slow down the cough jets."
In their experiment, Dhanak and Verma set up a test dummy that could project a human-like cough and sneeze (plus smoke rings!).
Behold: The dummy produces a horrifically filthy cloud of snot that wafts through the air:
The researchers also looked at the amount of time the droplets from a sneeze or cough remained suspended in the air. In the laboratory test, particles from heavy sneezes and coughs floated for more than one minute. And in some cases, those particles traveled outward, reaching a distance of six feet after 12 seconds in the air and nine feet after 41 seconds had passed.
As of now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people stay six feet away from one another to maintain proper social distancing. That guidance came about in the early 2000s as researchers studied how SARS spread on commercial airline flights.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, the six-foot measurement has been widely cited by public health officials in local, state, and federal government agencies. Miami-Dade County's own emergency order requires people in most public settings to stand six feet apart.
But the FAU experiment suggests people might need to place more distance between themselves and others to best prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
For now, the researchers say more studies are needed.
"There is currently a gap in knowledge over how COVID-19 spreads, as well as a scientific debate about how the disease moves in the air," engineering dean Stella Batalama says in the university's press release. "This experiment will help to shed more light on the spread of the disease through aerosols."