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The Physics Behind Why It’s Best to Cough and Sneeze Into the Crook of Your Elbow

Help curb the coronavirus by putting that elbow ditch to good use

In a strange and ominous turn of events, the coronavirus seems to have, at least temporarily, shocked the human race into upping our sanitation game. We spent the last few weeks hysterically hoarding Lysol, Clorox wipes, gloves and hand sanitizer. We spent the last few days slashing our cherished undies into haphazard masks. Meanwhile, just about every public health foundation on the planet has been spewing the importance of actively covering your coughs and sneezes, and fervently washing your hands

But when you find yourself wondering, “How far can a sneeze travel? How far can a cough travel?” then the ways in which you cover your face when releasing a barrage of infectious spittle become all the more important.

Now, I should note that neither sneezing nor runny noses are among the main signs of the coronavirus, but coughing certainly is. Nonetheless, if you have the coronavirus, sneezing is still one of the ways in which you can spread germs literally everywhere — a single sneeze can catapult contagious particles up to 200 feet, according to an MIT study. And if you check out the disgusting, sickening, nauseating video below, you can see that both sneezing and coughing discharge enormous clouds of infectious material into the space around you.

To some degree, many of us understand all of that, and when we feel a sneeze or cough coming, we impulsively cover our faces with our hands to curb the spread and be a decent human being. The problem with that approach is that, now our hands, which we use to do just about everything, are absolutely drenched in potentially infectious droplets. As you can see in the comically outdated, but fairly informative animation below — seriously, I recommend watching it, even if just for the lols — unless you then promptly wash them, your now-contaminated hands could easily taint a whole population of people.

This is exactly why health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend the following: “Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze,” or, “If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.” Put plainly, use a freaking tissue, or sneeze and cough into the crook of your elbow, dude.

As my colleague Magdalene Taylor recently explained, “The best thing about tissues is that, like toilet paper, it’s a one-time use, throw-away type of product (though you might have a tough time finding it in stores right now). This is important, because your snot and nasal mucus contains bacteria that can be transmitted to others. By coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose into a tissue, we’re helping ensure that fluid doesn’t go elsewhere.”

But even tissues pose some problems: Like masks, handkerchiefs and tissues leave a lot of room for human error, and even when used properly, can still leave your hand smothered in infectious mist. Moreover, not all of us are walking around with a stash of tissues that we can easily grab whenever a sneeze or cough comes knocking.

Your elbow nook, however, comes with you everywhere (hopefully), hence the common recommendation to use it as a cough and sneeze catcher. As for why it works, well, we pretty much already covered that. “This is just a case of, if you sneeze into the air, the droplets go everywhere, and if you cover your mouth with your hand, then you infect the first thing you touch,” explains Alex Klotz, an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. “We basically only have two options for quickly covering our face [our hands and our elbow crooks], unless someone is really good at yoga or jiu-jitsu.” 

And since our elbow nooks should be touching pretty much nothing all day — you would surely have to go out of your way to touch a bunch of stuff with your elbow nooks — the chances of you spreading germs after sneezing into them is pretty low.

Still, coughing and sneezing into your elbow is far from perfect — as is just about every approach, since coughing and sneezing release a serious storm of particles — which is why you should keep on washing your hands and showering regularly, even through quarantine. 

Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure to soap up those elbow ditches, too.