Mask of the mind

Planning your breaths could save your life

Chief Wiggum backs away screaming and shooting at a virus (The Simpsons).
Chief Wiggum has made some tactical errors here. Let’s investigate!

When someone with Covid breathes out, viral particles are most concentrated right next to their nose or mouth. The further away from them, the more diffuse the virus is — that’s why we socially distance.

You can imagine the viral particles in the air, in a dense cloud directly in front of people’s faces, and the cloud becoming more sparse, as it spreads out.

Intuitively, breathing closer to someone is worse than breathing further away from them, because you’ll be breathing in more virus than if you’d taken that breath at a greater distance.

The amount of virus you breathe in, and how long it’s within you, matters — the more virus, the higher the chances of infection being able to take hold.

So, what are the most protective ways we can breathe when we’re near other people?

  1. Holding your breath. The virus literally cannot enter (or exit) your lungs. Of course, it’s hard to do this for long.

How can we use this knowledge to reduce the spread of infection? Here are some examples:

Breathe out gently or hold your breath as you’re passing by near people.

  • Move into more open spaces before you take a large breath in.

Don’t sweat it if you find these difficult at first. It takes everyone a little getting used to, and it can be difficult to hold your breath for tens of seconds without some practice.

The best part is, these skills work as an additional safety measure with other techniques — masks, vaccines, social distancing, and so on. But they also work when not wearing a mask, when vaccines are limited, and in cramped spaces, like elevators and hallways, where social distancing isn’t possible and airflow is limited. You can always wear the mask of the mind.

We can develop these skills and our understanding together to help stop the spread of the virus.

Remember to follow the latest CDC guidelines on mask fit, or wear an N95 mask if you can.

If you’re interested in a deeper look, see this article on the scientific understanding that underpins these ideas.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.