How Far Can Germs Travel?

Understanding how germs are spread is vital to promoting the prevention of disease. While different bacteria, viruses, and pathogens spread differently, understanding the various methods of transmission can help protect your health and the health of those around you. 


Travel and Transmission 

It’s not a big deal if you, or someone close to you, forgets to cover their mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, right?

Unfortunately, the germs that are projected out of the nose and mouth during coughing or sneezing travel much farther than you think. 

A study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the germs from a single sneeze could travel anywhere from 19 to 26 feet. They also found that a sneeze can move up to 100 miles per hour, making it almost impossible to get away from someone when they sneeze too close to you. 

However, coughing and sneezing aren’t the only way to transmit disease. Below are the six most common ways that germs are transmitted:

1) Direct Contact Transmission

Close physical contact can transmit some diseases. Germs can be spread via saliva, wound secretions, sexual contact, or contact with blood. 

In daily life, safer sex practices and avoiding close contact with someone who is sick can help to prevent direct contact transmission. In healthcare settings, standard precautions such as wearing gloves and masks can prevent the spread of germs as well. 

2) Indirect Contact Transmission

Germs can be spread to various surfaces via droplets of mucus, blood, saliva, feces, or wound secretions. Surfaces that are touched frequently by different people carry the greatest risk. These surfaces may include door handles, tables, restroom surfaces, writing utensils, food service / buffet utensils etc. Indirect contact transmission can best be prevented by  washing your hands after using the restroom or touching shared surfaces. Avoiding touching your face and frequently disinfecting these surfaces can help as well.

3) Airborne Transmission

In airborne transmission, a virus or bacteria is able to remain in the air for a long period of time, be distributed by airflow, and be inhaled.

It is much more difficult to prevent transmitting or catching airborne infections. Isolating those who are sick is an important way to control the spread. In a medical setting, negative pressure isolation rooms ensure that air is drawn into the room from the outside, so it is not recirculated to/from other patients.

4) Droplet Transmission 

Droplet transmission is the most common way that cold and flu viruses are spread from person to person. Droplets can be transmitted via saliva and mucus by coughing, sneezing, and even talking! These droplets can enter the eyes, nose, or mouth of those who are in close proximity.

Typically, these droplets cannot survive in the air for a long period of time but they can be breathed in or contaminate surfaces where they land. 

To best prevent or reduce droplet transmission, cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow and wash your hands immediately after. Washing your hands and avoiding touching your face can help reduce the risk of coming in contact with these droplets as well.

5) Fecal-Oral Transmission

Often spreading by contaminated food and water, many kinds of stomach flu are transmitted in this category. Ingesting, bathing, or swimming in contaminated water can pose a risk for the spread of disease. A failure to wash your hands after using the restroom may result in fecal-oral transmission, as well. 

6) Vector-Borne Transmission

Mosquitoes, ticks, rats, dogs, and other animals can transfer some diseases to humans. The germ may be inside the animal or adhered to the outside of the animal’s body. 

In some cases, it can be possible to control the spread by eliminating contact with the animal, or vector. Vaccination of dogs and cats can prevent the spread of rabies. 

Prevention Tips 

Knowing the most prominent routes of transmission of any germ defines how to prevent the spread of disease. Listed below are a few simple ways to protect your health and the health of those around you:

Cover Your Cough or Sneeze

Barricading the spread of germs when you cough or sneeze can help to prevent them from traveling as far. It’s easy to use your hands to cover a cough or sneeze, but you must wash your hands immediately after.

And while using your sleeve is viewed as a better method because your sleeve is less likely to come into contact with different surfaces, coughing or sneezing into a tissue is the best method to prevent the spread of germs. Always throw away the tissue as soon as possible and wash your hands afterward for good measure. 

Wash Your Hands

Developing the habit of washing your hands throughout the day, specifically when you come home or are preparing food, will play a great part in preventing the spread of disease. And while hand sanitizer is useful when you don’t have access to a sink, it should not serve as a total replacement for washing your hands. 

Always use soap or an alcohol-based hand rub when washing your hands. Wash your hands for 20 seconds and be sure to wash in between your fingers, under your nails, and up to your wrists.

It’s important to avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth if you have not previously washed your hands. Every surface that we come in contact with could be contaminated. 

Stay Home if You’re Sick

It can be difficult to make the call to stay home from work or keep your child home from school. However, isolating yourself when you're sick plays a major part in combating the spread of the illness. Stay home if you are at high risk of infection to any contagious disease that  is prevalent in your community.

Build a Healthy Immune System

The best way to prevent spreading germs is to avoid getting sick in the first place! Give your immune system the support that it needs by drinking plenty of fluids, getting enough sleep, being physically active, eating a well-balanced diet including fruits & vegetables, and managing your stress every day.

It’s important to keep in mind how easily germs can be transmitted and how the spread of them can best be prevented. By actively working to prevent the transmission of disease, we can all strive for a happier, healthier future.