Qualitative real-time schlieren and shadowgraph imaging of human exhaled airflows: an aid to aerosol infection control

PLoS One. 2011;6(6):e21392. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021392. Epub 2011 Jun 22.


Using a newly constructed airflow imaging system, airflow patterns were visualized that were associated with common, everyday respiratory activities (e.g. breathing, talking, laughing, whistling). The effectiveness of various interventions (e.g. putting hands and tissues across the mouth and nose) to reduce the potential transmission of airborne infection, whilst coughing and sneezing, were also investigated. From the digital video footage recorded, it was seen that both coughing and sneezing are relatively poorly contained by commonly used configurations of single-handed shielding maneuvers. Only some but not all of the forward momentum of the cough and sneeze puffs are curtailed with various hand techniques, and the remaining momentum is disseminated in a large puff in the immediate vicinity of the cougher, which may still act as a nearby source of infection. The use of a tissue (in this case, 4-ply, opened and ready in the hand) proved to be surprisingly effective, though the effectiveness of this depends on the tissue remaining intact and not ripping apart. Interestingly, the use of a novel 'coughcatcher' device appears to be relatively effective in containing coughs and sneezes. One aspect that became evident during the experimental procedures was that the effectiveness of all of these barrier interventions is very much dependent on the speed with which the user can put them into position to cover the mouth and nose effectively.From these qualitative schlieren and shadowgraph imaging experiments, it is clear that making some effort to contain one's cough or sneeze puffs is worthwhile. Obviously, there will be a large amount of variation between individuals in the exact hand or tissue (the most common methods) configuration used for this and other practical factors may hinder such maneuvers in daily life, for example, when carrying shopping bags or managing young children.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aerosols / adverse effects*
  • Exhalation
  • Humans
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional / methods*
  • Infection Control / methods*
  • Pulmonary Ventilation / physiology*
  • Time Factors


  • Aerosols