Updated 13 December 2017

How far can a cough travel?

A cough can travel far and carry with it many germs, putting other people at risk of catching your disease.

Everyone coughs from time to time. It can be just a once-off effort to clear the air passages or, on the other end of the scale, a chronic cough lasting for months.

When you cough, you expel tiny drops of water into the air. If you have a throat or lung disease, the germs that caused the illness will be present in these droplets.

If other people breathe in these germs, they may catch the disease. This happens especially in the case of colds and flu.

Explosive force

According to Science Focus coughing spreads droplets as far as six metres (half the length of a telephone pole), and sneezing up to eight metres. The droplets can stay in the air for up to 10 minutes. 

Cough etiquette

A seemingly innocent cough spreads your germs far and wide, which underlines the importance of taking others into consideration. Cough etiquette is a way of blocking or reducing the spread of germs into a shared space.

You can do this by:

  • Coughing into a handkerchief or disposable tissue. The advantage of a tissue is that you can immediately throw it away. Handkerchiefs, on the other hand, are sturdier and more substantial than tissues.
  • Coughing into your sleeve or the crook of your arm. Avoid coughing into your hand as you also spread germs by touching objects. Remember to wash your hands regularly with soap and water, or use a hand sanitzer.  
  • Turning away from other people when coughing. This helps by projecting germs away from them. In Japan people who have respiratory ailments often wear surgical masks in public.

Watch the following YouTube video about the spreading of germs by coughs and sneeze:

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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