Journal of Fluid Mechanics

Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing

Lydia Bourouibaa1a2 c1, Eline Dehandschoewerckera3 and John W. M. Busha1

a1 Department of Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02130, USA

a2 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02130, USA

a3 PMMH - ESPCI, O207 10, rue Vauquelin, 75005 Paris, France


Violent respiratory events such as coughs and sneezes play a key role in transferring respiratory diseases between infectious and susceptible individuals. We present the results of a combined experimental and theoretical investigation of the fluid dynamics of such violent expiratory events. Direct observation of sneezing and coughing events reveals that such flows are multiphase turbulent buoyant clouds with suspended droplets of various sizes. Our observations guide the development of an accompanying theoretical model of pathogen-bearing droplets interacting with a turbulent buoyant momentum puff. We develop in turn discrete and continuous models of droplet fallout from the cloud in order to predict the range of pathogens. According to the discrete fallout model droplets remain suspended in the cloud until their settling speed matches that of the decelerating cloud. A continuous fallout model is developed by adapting models of sedimentation from turbulent fluids. The predictions of our theoretical models are tested against data gathered from a series of analogue experiments in which a particle-laden cloud is ejected into a relatively dense ambient. Our study highlights the importance of the multiphase nature of respiratory clouds, specifically the suspension of the smallest drops by circulation within the cloud, in extending the range of respiratory pathogens.

(Received January 04 2013)

(Revised December 29 2013)

(Accepted February 07 2014)

(Online publication March 24 2014)

Key words

  • biological fluid dynamics;
  • multiphase and particle-laden flows;
  • turbulent flows


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