Episode 147: Flu Fiction

Air Date: June 9, 2010

A sneeze can leave a person’s nose/mouth at 100 mph (160 km/h).


Adam and Jamie used snuff to irritate their mucous membranes and force themselves to sneeze. Droplets from Adam’s and Jamie’s sneezes traveled at 35 mph (56 km/h) and 39 mph (63 km/h), respectively.

Droplets from a sneeze can travel up to a distance of 30 ft (9.1 m).


To get a visual indication of distance, Adam mixed cherry drink powder into the snuff and sneezed over a 30-foot-long strip of white paper. When this method failed to show any marks, he and Jamie tried drinking a small amount of food coloring just before sneezing. This idea worked, giving a maximum distance of 17 ft (5.2 m) for Adam and 13 ft (4.0 m) for Jamie.

Nasal secretions from a person with a cold can spread so far and so quickly that anyone in the vicinity can become contaminated.


Adam and Jamie consulted with an otolaryngologist and learned that a person with a cold may secrete up to 60 milliliters of mucus per hour. Jamie built a rig from a syringe and tubing to match that drip rate with fluorescent dye, and Adam wore it by his nose as he did model-building work. After one hour, he and everything he had touched were stained with the dye.

They then set up a party for Adam to host, with three “germaphobe” guests (Kari, Grant, and Tory, who were briefed to try to avoid contact with Adam) and three unsuspecting ones. Thirty minutes later, Adam, the whole table, and every guest except Kari – who admitted that she actually was a germaphobe – were heavily contaminated. In a second experiment in which Adam consciously did his best to avoid physical contact, all six guests came up clean.

Adam and Jamie declared the myth confirmed at this point, commenting that a healthy person would find it very difficult to avoid being contaminated by a sick one who did not attempt to keep from spreading his/her germs.

Tornado-force winds can propel window glass with enough speed to decapitate a person.


Kari and Tory obtained a pig spine with skin and muscle, trimmed it down to resemble an elongated neck, and attached a dummy head. The Build Team then obtained several 1/8 inch (3.2 mm) thick glass panes that conformed to building codes for houses in tornado-prone areas, and began throwing them at “Neck Man” by hand. They had difficulty reaching a suitable combination of speed and accuracy; none of their throws inflicted more than a minor wound.

Tory then built a frame to attach to a pickup truck, with a heavy 14.3 lb (6.5 kg) glass sheet loosely mounted to hit Neck Man edge-on but break loose just before impact. The first attempt, at 80 mph (129 km/h) – the equivalent kinetic energy of a light pane traveling 300 mph (483 km/h) in an F5 tornado – sliced the head off. A second test at 40 mph (64 km/h) (150 mph (241 km/h) for a light pane in a less powerful F2 tornado) also cut completely through the neck. However, the glass did not break out of its holder, indicating that the momentum of the truck may have affected the result.

Back at the workshop, the team built a rig to throw 1/4 inch (6.4 mm) thick panes (twice as heavy as the original ones) at 70 mph (113 km/h). After several tries, they were able to score a hit that completely and cleanly severed the head, leading them to declare the myth confirmed.


  1. buster says:

    can you catch a cold from being in the cold?

    • David says:

      No dah!! thats why its called a cold, because you get a cold from being cold!!

      • levi says:

        actually no, you get a cold in the winter from staying in you house, where your heater dries the air, irritating your respiritory passages, which allows the virus to affect you. being outside in the cold prevents this because it causes a natural rection to produce more mucus, preventing irritation

      • david 2 says:

        so exsplain why people in brazil get colds then

  2. dom says:

    being in the cold lowers your immune system, making you more vulnerable to any colds or flues that are out there

    • Calli Arcale says:

      Not actually true. Being in the cold has no association with cold, pneumonia, bronchial infections, or influenza. However, some of the more prominent strains of influenza are cold-adapted, which lets them survive longer in the cold than in the heat, which makes them infectious for longer, which makes one infected person likely to pass it on to more people.

      So you don’t get colds from being cold, but colds are more likely in cold weather.

  3. tom says:

    when did grant first appear on mythbusters?

    • Mike says:

      EP.33-Killer brace position

  4. P says:

    Grant debuted in the episode “Hollywood on Trial.” He may have been doing behind the scenes work for the Mythbusters prior to this episode, but I’m not sure, I just know that this was the first episode that he appeared on camera.

  5. Jaco says:

    Did you guys ever think that when you have a cold the nasal openings swell up and becomes smaller, thus if the pressure of a sneeze is constant,(due to lung capacity etc.) the mucus might travel much further due to exiting a smaller opening. (much like the “throttle” on a fighter jet which makes the exit larger or smaller. … Just a thought. Jaco.

  6. Mr. E says:

    Ok Mythbusters – On “Sneeze Velocity” you missed a key point of physics – The universal time constant which can be applied to the charge and discharge of energy. In this case the expulsion of sneeze droplets. If their initial expulsion were 100 mph and the time constant of 63.25% is applied in a exponetial loss curve, then they are reduced to 36.75 mph in the very first time constant – which very closely meets your findings using velocity measurement over TIME – the key factor. The instantaneous expulsion would be 100 mph. Myth confirmed!

  7. ian says:

    Does it count were nasal secretions are left like in a lake puddle or on a roof?

  8. Bill says:

    would a penny dropped from the empire state building would it crack the side walk

  9. John says:

    RE: Bill:

    Would a penny dropped from the empire state building would it crack the side walk

    The answer is no because the penny would never reach terminal velocity due to it’s shape and the influence of air causing it to go from it’s side to face in an alternating fashion.

    However if you placed the penny in a vacuum tube and dropped it (on its side) then the influence of air would be non existent and the chances would be greatly increased.

    In lieu of that a ball bearing that is pitted (like a modern golf ball) would reach terminal velocity just before impact and would more than likely damage the sidewalk.

    • MSpears says:

      “The answer is no because the penny would never reach terminal velocity due to it’s shape and the influence of air causing it to go from it’s side to face in an alternating fashion.”

      @John: Actually, I recall some show (don’t remember which one, might even have been MB) where they asked someone who actually WORKED at the Empire State Building that exact question.

      The answer is, “most of them actually land on the ledge about ten floors down.” So the majority of those pennies would never get to the sidewalk anyway.

  10. Robyn says:

    if you threw a penny from the empire building and it landed on someones head would they die

  11. study says:

    does pouring cold water on your head make you study better,because more blood will rush to your head then you will be able to study and learn better

  12. S-M-R-T says:

    if you want to increase blood flow to an area of your body, use warm water. cold water causes blood vessels to constrict. a cold wet facecloth to the face would help stop a bleeding nose for example.

  13. Eric says:

    Sneeze Myth; Speed: The test here was flawed in that it was the speed liquid was propelled by a sneeze. The flaw is that the test doesn’t measure the force which is propelling the liquid; 100 mph myth is based (as I understood it) on the speed of the air being forced out by the sneeze, (which is consistent with the point that a sneeze originates from the lungs). The propelled liquid would essentially be pickup and carried along for the ride by the air flow and would of course not be traveling as quickly by the air carrying it.

    Sneeze Myth; Distance: The test here wasn’t so much flawed as it was off point. The episode was focused on flu/cold myths so the proper question would be how far could a sneeze propel a sufficiently contagious cluster flue/cold microbes (such I doubt is viable or that the unfortunate victim would know. Granted I don’t have a clue how you could actual test this. However, though it wasn’t shown clearly, the closer to the person the lager the spatters of dye; whereas the long distance splatters where much smaller. Since the amount necessary to infect someone is probable far less that what would be visible I suspect that it would be plausible to reach 30 ft. (Also when dealing with a volume that small there are additional variable which might have a greater effect that one might think; for instance how does the humidify affect the distance and how would elevation effect the distance; i.e. does how thin the air is change the results.)

    Nasal myths; Good I like it. Could have done more scary though, such as adding additional stuff (doors, handles, drawers, and etc.) Also, could have gone further and did a test were Adam was in the room preparing for the party further proliferating the nasal secretions instead everybody entering the dye free area each time.

    Generally flu/cold myths: normally the mechanics of a myth are tested in an environment which is designed to gaunter success (e.g. mini-gun and fish in the barrel (favorite)), so I was a little disappointed about not being able to see the dreaded confined airplane scenario,

    Glass thing…. okay…. that was gratuitous, enjoyable- a little weird watching the cheering over the decapitation vehicle.

    • levi says:

      unfortunately your missing the fact that microbes require fluid to survive so the air speed theory is probbably negligible. I do realize that the cold is created by a virus but it needs to live off of microbes to survive, causing the fluid to be the main factor

      • Xenobio says:

        Microbes don’t actually need fluid to survive. Some viruses like the common cold virus are pretty resistant to drying, and many bacteria will form spores and not die when you dry them out. But more to the point, microbes do travel in droplets. Possibly a better way to test this would have been to build a fake nose, attach it to an air pump, and blow out some harmless bacteria like Serratia marcescens onto petri dishes set 30 feet away.

        • john o says:

          Serratia marcescens is not a “harmless” bacteria.. I got a nasty lung infection from them once.

  14. Philliip Russell says:

    On your episode that you attempted to skip a very expensive foreign made car accross a creek I noticed one thing with the car that was used as the test car. Most foreign cars especially the Ferrari and Lamborghini have flat wide low profile bodies with the engines in the rear of the car not the front . an engine in the front would tilt the car forward and an enginge in the rear may make the car skip better.

    • Baz says:

      Also, they reduced the scale of the car, but didn’t reduce the bouyancy factor of the scale model. They would have to reduce the density of the liquid to make the bouyancy factor equivalent, or in scale.

  15. Mike says:

    I remember a while back when I was really sick, my mom suggested we put a peeled onion on my bedside table. Is it in any way true, or was this made up? From my personal experience, it seemed to work. The onion became black and in a day or two, I was better.
    Did the onion become black because it was rotten, only after a couple days, or did it actually absorb the flu virus?
    Did I get better because of the onion absorbing the virus, or maybe it has to do with another part of the onion,or maybe because I thought it was working, so my body became better?

    • Xenobio says:

      There’s no way for the onion to suck a virus out of your body. If you leave a cut onion out at room temperature it’s going to rot in a couple of days. If you have a cold and it’s not anything real nasty and you’re a normal person (as in you don’t have AIDS or diabetes or anything) you’ll get better from a cold in a couple of days. It’s just coincidence.

    • Karl The G says:

      You would get better by eating onions instead of having a sleep over.

    • lisa p says:

      placebo effect only. there is no other science behind this… but have fun with your smelly room. you’re a guy so it won’t be that different from the usual boy stank. lol

  16. Tam Rutherford says:

    Just watching the episode on Discovery Channel in the UK where they used coloured food dye to sneeze with….
    They were getting 14-17ft with the Dye and saying Busted but they forget about microscopic Particles that are invisible that may travel much further….
    My suggestion would be to sneeze in a sterile enviroment and take a DNA sample from a suitable surface ( + compare it to the person sneezing ) to determine how far it REALLY travels….
    Sorry I’ve not read any posts before this but just felt like posting my thoughts while fresh, to everyone else….

  17. P Fudd says:

    With colds, I’ve been told that by the time you have symptoms, you are no longer infectious. Is this true?

    Also, I’ve been reading about Zinc Lozenges, and how they’ve been found to be good at stopping colds faster than by doing nothing.

  18. Peter Deneen says:

    The Flu Sneeze episode was aired again today on Discovery channel in South Africa, so hopefully the topic is still current. The last commentator was on to something, but didn’t go far enough. A useful test would be to measure how far and wide micro particles carrying mucus fly when sneezing into a Kleenex (or other tissue). My conspiracy theory is that Kimberly Clark (manufacturer of Kleenex brand tissues) understand very clearly how far air particles travel, and the relationship between spreading flu germs by sneezing into a “soft” tissue versus a cloth handkerchief, or napkin (with less free flying particles). I would like to see Mythbusters test this, though I recognize that the program is more about entertainment than science or health.
    Bottom line: Sneezing into soft Kleenex tissues dramatically increases the spread of colds and the flu in offices, and public transportation.

    • MSpears says:

      That’s one heck of a conspiracy theory, but… surprisingly… I have to admit it isn’t as far-fetched as a lot of the conspiracy theories I’ve heard.

      I can see where Kimberly-Clark could have a vested interest in spreading the common cold. After all, they sell more Kleenex that way. :)

  19. Alecia says:

    Can sliced onions absorb flu viruses, and other bacteria to purify the air? I question is based on the Myth of Cutting up an onion, placing it on a tin plate and setting in the same room as a sick child sleeps, the onion draws the complaint into itself, and when the child is better then care must be taken to see that the onion is properly burnt.

    • tim says:

      Everyone has to stop saying that the onion attracts the germs. at most it is creating a less habbitable environment as it releases sulfates in the enclosed room etc.

  20. Jim Blythe says:

    I been reading anecdotal stories regarding onions “absorbing” viruses and/or bacteria and that “testing” shows an onion with the top and bottom cutoff had contaminates in the onion itself. Has Mythbusters checked out onions in this way?

  21. jalil says:

    how many kilometers can travels a normal sneeze

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