Turns out it's grosser than we actually thought.
According to U.S. News and World Report, what we expel into the air is downright disgusting. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that when we sneeze we release liquids that first balloon and then break into longer pieces.
Using slow-motion photography, scientists observed this process. What is even worse is how these longer pieces then break down even further to create a fine mist of bacteria.
Dr. Lydia Bourouiba, assistant processor and current head of the Disease Transmission and Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, led the study.
"What we saw was surprising in many ways," said Bourouiba. "We expected to see droplets coming out fully formed from the respiratory tract. It turns out that's not the case at all."
As gross as it sounds to sit and watch people sneeze, this research is vital when it comes to combating the spread of illness. Bourouiba added that observing just how our sneezes travel through the air can help create a map that lays out how illnesses spread. It can even help identify those who are more likely to pass the illness onto others, or "super-spreaders."
Currently there is a separate room at MIT where Bourouiba and other scientists are observing how sneezes and coughs spread illness. It is here that this study will continue, as Bourouiba has made it her mission to crack the code behind the common cold and influenza.
"In the coming year, at different cold and influenza seasons, we will be recruiting human subjects whom we can work with to see them in infection and in health," she said.
Further information has been published in the most recent edition of Experiments in Fluids.