Exhaled air dispersion during coughing with and without wearing a surgical or N95 mask

PLoS One. 2012;7(12):e50845. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050845. Epub 2012 Dec 5.


Objectives: We compared the expelled air dispersion distances during coughing from a human patient simulator (HPS) lying at 45° with and without wearing a surgical mask or N95 mask in a negative pressure isolation room.

Methods: Airflow was marked with intrapulmonary smoke. Coughing bouts were generated by short bursts of oxygen flow at 650, 320, and 220L/min to simulate normal, mild and poor coughing efforts, respectively. The coughing jet was revealed by laser light-sheet and images were captured by high definition video. Smoke concentration in the plume was estimated from the light scattered by smoke particles. Significant exposure was arbitrarily defined where there was ≥ 20% of normalized smoke concentration.

Results: During normal cough, expelled air dispersion distances were 68, 30 and 15 cm along the median sagittal plane when the HPS wore no mask, a surgical mask and a N95 mask, respectively. In moderate lung injury, the corresponding air dispersion distances for mild coughing efforts were reduced to 55, 27 and 14 cm, respectively, p < 0.001. The distances were reduced to 30, 24 and 12 cm, respectively during poor coughing effort as in severe lung injury. Lateral dispersion distances during normal cough were 0, 28 and 15 cm when the HPS wore no mask, a surgical mask and a N95 mask, respectively.

Conclusions: Normal cough produced a turbulent jet about 0.7 m towards the end of the bed from the recumbent subject. N95 mask was more effective than surgical mask in preventing expelled air leakage during coughing but there was still significant sideway leakage.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Microbiology
  • Cough*
  • Exhalation
  • Humans
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Patient-to-Professional*
  • Masks*
  • Patient Simulation

Grant support

This work was supported by the Research Fund for the Control of Infectious Diseases (# CU-09-01-05, PHE18), Food and Health Bureau, Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.