Say It Without Spraying It: How to Breathe and Talk During a Pandemic
A simple guide to the unexpected ways our mouths spread the coronavirus — and what we can do to contain it
True or false: You can catch COVID-19 just by smelling someone’s garlic breath.
Well, according to some scientists, yes. But even though infected people might become coronavirus sprinkler systems while breathing or talking, it doesn’t mean we should all live in fear of the air around us. Decades of research and librarians can both agree that certain ways of breathing and talking are superior to others. And when we return to work and socializing, if we stay smart and aware of how this virus spreads, we can hopefully keep SARS-CoV-2 out of our bodies.
Not all the tips in this article are practical, but they’re meant to get you thinking about solutions to some of our biggest social challenges ahead. Many people transmit this virus without having symptoms or knowing they’re sick, which is why all of us need to decrease the spread of our germs.
Here’s what scientists know about the liquid that squirts out of people’s faces while they’re talking and breathing — and the research that can help us reduce this risk.
If you rank different face activities — like coughing, sneezing, talking, and breathing — by the total amount of liquid that sprays out, breathing is by far the least offensive. But if you’re in an enclosed space with other breathers, enough little droplets of liquid could accumulate in the air over time to create a much larger risk.
Unfortunately, asking certain coworkers or extended family members to “stop breathing” is not an option. However, there are some steps we could all take together to lower the risk that comes from breathing around others.
Ostracize the mouth breathers
Sure, everyone occasionally breathes out of their mouths. But some people sit around catching flies with their mouths all day long. In general, research finds that mouth breathers send many more droplets into the air than those of us who keep our mouths shut. Breathing through our noses may become more difficult as allergy season ramps up, but if we keep our nasal passages clear and functional, it could help reduce the total amount of liquid droplets in the air.
Count to five
This may sound crazy, but if you must exhale through your mouth, it’s best to first pause for five seconds before exhaling… then exhale slowly. Research finds that this type of exhale creates only 18% to 40% of the droplets normally produced by other types of exhales. But don’t blindly trust the scientists — see for yourself by fog-testing different breathing styles on a mirror.
An additional bonus to counting in between breaths: It’s also a popular form of meditation. Most of us are dealing with extra stress right now, and a little breath meditation might be a good source of support.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably dying to know why this breath trick works. The reasoning is as follows: Imagine someone eating a peanut butter sandwich with their mouth open. In between each chew, gooey strings of peanut butter snap and fling little bits of spittle as the teeth open apart. Similarly, each time you inhale, tiny moist lung sacs fill with air, and the re-opening of these lung cavities creates a “film burst.” But if you wait a few seconds before exhaling, most of these little droplets will have a chance to settle back down in your lungs.
Reduce indoor physical exertion around others
When we exercise or do manual labor, we breathe harder, faster, and often with our mouths wide open. Clearly, this sends many more liquid droplets into the air, which can quickly accumulate into a steamy, germy mess without proper ventilation. If breathing does end up being a significant source of coronavirus infections — remember, this has yet to be fully researched and proven—then fitness classes, gyms, and dance clubs could pose a high risk.
Obviously, we all need to breathe. And no matter what tricks we use, we will still send little droplets of liquid into the air around us. That’s why, if we must be together indoors for work, play or prayer, we need to focus on diluting the concentration of droplets in the air.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to keep the windows and doors open. A good ventilation system or HEPA filtration might also do the trick. When possible, gathering outdoors would be best — although still not a perfect solution, especially if everyone is crowded together.
Wear face masks
One of the easiest ways to reduce the number of respiratory droplets in the air is for everyone to wear a face mask. Research shows that simple surgical masks can reduce the number of exhaled viruses carried in large droplets by 96%, and in aerosols by 64%. Another recent paper also confirms that simple surgical masks can reduce the number of seasonal coronaviruses carried by aerosols and larger droplets. Masks are by no means perfect, but at this point in time, every little bit counts.
Although breathing doesn’t send a large amount of liquid into the air, once people start opening up their mouths and talking (or singing), things can get a lot wetter. That’s because, in addition to the fog of aerosols released by breathing, talking also squirts out lots of large droplets that can each carry a lot more viruses than any aerosol can hold.
Research finds that counting aloud to 100 sends almost as much liquid into the air as 20 normal coughs. In other words, when you’re talking face-to-face with someone, it’s as though you are coughing at each other every few seconds.
These bigger droplets won’t stay in the air as long as tiny aerosols do (unless it’s very dry and they evaporate), but they will land on your face and body. And they’ll also land in your food.
Pretty gross. However, there are a few things we can change that could help reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 from talkers.
Shush the loudest people
Librarians were right all along — speaking quietly is better for everyone! Research finds that when people speak loudly, they spray around ten times as many small droplets compared to when they say the same thing quietly. If we can all use our “indoor voices” around others, it will help reduce the number of droplets sprayed into the air from conversation.
Lower the background noise
People report that restaurants and bars have been getting noisier over the years… which may have something to do with the fact that people order more alcohol when it’s loud. Unfortunately, the louder the background noise, the louder people talk in order to hear each other. It might be time to return to the days of carpeting, tablecloths, plush seating and whispering patrons if you don’t want a bunch of germs sprayed all over the place.
Silence at the meal table
Although the CDC recommends that we all wear face coverings in public when we can’t easily maintain social distancing, it is physically impossible to wear a mask while eating. This means that any conversation over a meal will result in a full, unprotected load of droplets sprayed onto your meal companions and their food. Added to that is the worrisome finding that people spray five times more liquid while talking if they have just gargled with a solution of sugar and food coloring in their mouths — which might make mealtime conversation the most dangerous form of talking.
Although this shouldn’t be a problem if you’re dining with your socially distant companion(s), the risk quickly increases in a cafeteria or other setting where you sit close to a large number of acquaintances or strangers. Crowded meals are often noisy — which means faces are closer together and voices are louder. Silent meals might be a good prevention measure at schools, conferences, break rooms, and cruise buffets if COVID-19 is spreading in your community.
Order shots, not margaritas
When at a bar or party, people have a tendency to speak loudly and at a distance of closer than six feet apart. If we follow the CDC’s guidelines and wear masks while spending time with friends and casual encounters, then ordering a drink that can be downed quickly would be better than a drink that needs to be sipped over time. And since sugar and food coloring increases saliva spray by five-fold, it might be a good idea to skip the sweet, colorful drinks anyways.
Stop squealing “eeeeh!”
Research finds that certain sounds create more droplets than others. Among the vowels, the sound “ee” produces the most droplets. And among consonants, the worst ones are “d”, “b”, “g”, etc… the more ex-“plosive” sounding ones.
Some scientists think these simple differences could mean that some languages spread disease less often than other languages. Interesting, but in all practicality, it’s hard to make any meaningful changes to how we speak based on this finding — other than perhaps not saying “eeeeh!”
What About the Super-Spreaders?
No matter what we change about the way we speak or breathe, there will still be some of us who, just by chance, produce a magnitude more aerosols while breathing or talking. These “super-spreaders” aren’t easy to spot; they’re not necessarily foaming at the mouth.
When researchers examine their speech patterns, super-spreaders don’t speak the loudest, nor do they ssspeak like sssnakes. Instead, the quantity of droplets that spray out of their mouths might have more to do with their internal chemistry — which is not easy to control. If you want to get technical, it probably has something to do with the low surface tension of the liquid lining their respiratory tracts.
Some research shows that when super-spreaders inhale a fine mist of salty water, it can reduce the amount of aerosols they exhale by 70% for up to six hours. That’s because the salty liquid changes the physics of their lung fluid. Although this would be an easy and inexpensive request, it is difficult to locate potential super-spreaders without extensive testing.
Let’s Focus on Dilution
Although scientists don’t know how many coronavirus particles a person needs to inhale in order to get sick, it is probably hundreds — if not thousands. And if this virus is like other viruses, then even if you do get infected, the fewer virus particles you’re exposed to, the less dangerous your infection could be. That’s why we shouldn’t obsess over every single free-floating virus: coronavirus protection doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing plan.
At some point, we’ll need to return to work and school. But when we begin to gather again, let’s do it intelligently. Without an effective vaccine, any measure we take to control the spread will — at best — only offer partial protection. But if we combine a large number of partially-effective measures together at the same time, we can dilute away the coronavirus’ power over our lives.