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October 7, 2020

Ahhhh Chooo! Sneezing in a Pandemic

Are you the person that sneezes so loud that people jump when they hear it? Have you felt yourself holding a sneeze back in public so others don’t think you have coronavirus? Do not worry. Sneezing is common to all individuals. Some people sneeze loudly and some sneeze softly. Some have one giant sneeze while others have multiple small sneezes. Whatever the style, sneezing occurs when a stimulant triggers a reflex resulting in inhalation of air and a rapid release of that air through the nose and mouth. Stimulants may include mucous, dust, allergens, particulates, chemicals or infectious particles. Once the irritant has triggered the start of the sneeze reflex, a signal is sent to the brain, which coordinates slow inspiration of air while closing the vocal cords. The brain then triggers expulsion of the air with a quick opening of the vocal cords and contraction of the chest muscles at the same time. The air is then forced out of the lower airway through the nose and mouth at speeds that can be over 100 miles per hour! This effort is designed to clear the irritant from the nasal lining.

What happens after sneezing?

When the air is expelled out of the nose, so are tens of thousands of particles ranging in size from 0.5-5 micrometers (approximately the diameter of one silk strand from a spider web). This becomes important in spreading infectious disease, as these particles are so small that the human eye is not capable of seeing them. They can land several feet from the person that sneezed.

What does sneezing have to do with the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

While scientists are still learning about how the coronavirus spreads, we do know that one of the primary ways the virus spreads is from person to person, especially those in close contact (less than 6 feet). The respiratory droplets produced by a cough or sneeze can be inhaled by another person or land on different surfaces. If a noninfected person touches that surface and then proceeds to touch his/her nose, mouth, or eyes, this could result in infection. Additionally, we know that many adults and children may have the virus but do not show any symptoms. This fact becomes especially important with children who frequently cough, sneeze and touch surfaces before anyone even notices.

How do we protect our children as they return to school?

Similar to covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze, wearing masks helps limit the spread of particles. The masks prevent spreading in the nearby area and also protect the wearer from inhaling some of the particles that could have been expelled by another person. The CDC recommends that all children 2 years of age and older wear masks while in public places. Watch for any signs and symptoms, including fever, cough or difficulty breathing. Follow your school’s recommendations to help prevent spread. Washing your hands and wiping down surfaces after touching, laundering clothes in warmest water possible, social distancing (at least 6 feet apart) and ensuring your child is up to date on immunizations and well child visits are all good practices to help limit the spread. Talking to your children about the virus and steps they can take (including covering their nose and mouth when they sneeze!) is another effective way to help keep your children safe.


About the Author: Pediatric Ear, Nose & Throat Specialists is pleased to announce the addition of Peter S. Karempelis, M.D. to our practice.  Dr. Karempelis received his training in Otolaryngology at the University of Minnesota, Department of Otolaryngology. He completed a fellowship in Pediatric Otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University’s Monroe Carell, Jr. Children’s Hospital. Dr. Karempelis is a graduate of The University of Georgia (BS, Education: Exercise & Sports Science) and received his MD from Medical College of Georgia/University of Georgia Medical Partnership. He is a member of the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery.  He has authored numerous articles and presented at the nation’s top Otolaryngology conferences.

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