Cough

12 March 2018

Can you get sick if someone coughs on you?

The fine saliva mist emitted by a cough remains suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes.

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Most people know that germs cause diseases, so they do their best to shield others from their coughs and sneezes. But can you get sick if someone who is contagious coughs on you?

Yes. The average cough expels about 20 000 viruses, which can potentially infect a number of people.

Viruses can survive for hours

According to LiveScience, about 3 000 droplets of saliva are expelled out of the mouth at speeds of up to 80 km/h in a single cough.

Coughing spreads droplets as far as 6m (half the length of a telephone pole), and sneezing up to 8m.

These droplets remain suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes, allowing ample time to be breathed in by other people.

Even when the droplets hit a surface, the viruses can survive and become airborne later. On paper, virus particles can survive for hours and on steel or plastic they can survive for days.

Three considerations

Whether being coughed on will make you sick depends on:

  • The extent of the exposure – e.g. how many droplets you inhaled
  • Whether the "cougher" is contagious or not
  • Your level of immunity – how susceptible you are to the cold or flu virus you're exposed to

When are we contagious?

The only time you can catch the flu or a cold (or anything else) from another person is when they’re contagious, which means they can pass the pathogen on to other people.  

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, adults could start infecting other people with the flu or a cold one day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after becoming sick. That means you may actually be contagious before you know you are sick.

Some people can be infected with the flu virus, for example, but have no symptoms, during which time they may unwittingly spread the virus to others.

How to strengthen your immunity?

Apart from getting your annual flu shot, which will help protect you against a number of flu viruses, the best way to increase your resistance against getting sick is by following a healthy lifestyle.

According to Harvard Medical School the following strategies will help strengthen your immune system:

  • Don't smoke
  • Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables

  • Get regular exercise

  • Maintain a healthy weight

  • Drink alcohol in moderation

  • Get the right amount of sleep

  • Wash your hands frequently

  • Minimise stress

Facing a cough head-on

No matter how careful you are and how considerate other people may be, there will be times when you can’t avoid facing a cough head-on.

Here are a few tips to reduce the impact of other people’s coughs:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf or tissue when in public places – or even wear a mask – to avoid breathing in other people’s germs.
  • If someone in your household or office has a cough, you have a good chance of breathing in cough droplets. Try to keep your distance from them and don’t share items like clothes and food utensils.
  • Stay away from crowds, especially in enclosed spaces, to avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Turn your head or entire body away if it looks like someone wants to cough in your direction. 

 Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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