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Is Spitting While Running a Coronavirus Risk?

Am I a menace to public health for very elegantly, very discreetly snot-rocketing all over the sidewalk around the one-mile mark?

A mile into my daily run, I am a mess of excretion, a grotesque monster dripping with sweat, tears, snot and saliva. It’s remarkably disgusting, but I do take solace in the fact that I’m not alone in my grotesquerie. Physical activity causing every hole in your face to produce extra fluids is called exercise-induced rhinitis, and per the International Journal of Otolaryngology, it can affect anywhere from 24 to 74 percent of athletes. 

Basically, all the extra hard breathing you’re doing is causing an allergic reaction to something. “The harder you work out, the more you’re breathing in and out, which if you’re allergic to anything floating around in the air, causes a quicker or more exaggerated reaction to those allergens,” six-time marathon runner Paul Ronto tells me. And if it’s not an allergen in the air causing irritation, it could simply be that the increase in airflow is drying out your airways, which is in and of itself an irritant and which your body will react to by producing more moisture

What should you do about it, though? Ronto says you could take precautions by “using some nasal spray before you head out on your next run.” But what if you don’t? What if you end up snot-rocketing onto the sidewalk as a quick means of clearing those clogged nasal passages? In these COVID times, does that make you a menace to public health? 

Big time, says David Westenberg, associate professor of biological sciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology. The same goes for spitting, too. “First of all, both acts should be seriously frowned upon for several reasons beyond the disgust factor,” Westenberg begins. “The science of COVID-19 indicates that the major risk is from aerosols containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And both of these acts are producing aerosols that could potentially carry viruses and remain in the air for a period of time.” 

Ever the scientist, he continues, “Some might think of spit as a more ‘held together’ liquid compared to coughing or sneezing, but the act of spitting is also going to produce a lot of fine droplets that can hang in the air. The same principle applies to blowing your nose. It seems more ‘contained,’ but the act of expelling any liquid is going to generate aerosols.” 

By now, we should be well aware of the frightening amount of microscopic droplets of virus and bacteria-containing sputum that get blasted from your face during a sneeze or cough. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, while the large droplets containing coronavirus mainly settle on the ground and cause surface contamination, smaller droplets can remain in the air for much longer, as well as travel longer distances

Now consider that a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that blowing your nose can create as much as 10 times the amount of pressure created by a sneeze or cough. Not only does this potentially result in more snot and mucus being ejected from your schnoz, but an increase in distance as well. 

Moreover, “if someone spits or blows their nose while running, that would likely generate even more fine droplets as the airflow breaks up the spit or what you blow out of your nose,” Westenberg explains. Granted, he concedes, if you’re running by yourself on an empty trail in the middle of the woods, “the risk of someone coming into contact with those aerosols is probably pretty low, but it’s still a risk.” 

And don’t try to weasel out of this by thinking you’re being considerate by rocketing your snot straight onto the ground or spitting only in storm drains. Beyond the millions of microbes you’ve just floated into the air and onto someone’s car door, even the puddle of spit and snot you’ve planted onto the concrete can be a hazard. “The other issue is where those large and small droplets are going to land on the ground,” Westenberg continues. “There have been some studies on viruses being detected on the soles of shoes.” 

Again, relatively speaking, Westenberg says being outside and maintaining social distance lowers the risk of infection, “but the potential risk is still there, and we should try to minimize it as much as possible.” (To that end, researchers recommend that runners maintain a distance of 32 feet from each other.) 

“If you absolutely have to blow your nose and don’t have a tissue or towel, then, as disgusting as it seems, using your shirt is probably the best option,” Westenberg suggests. 

Just make sure that shirt-turned-snot-rag goes straight into the washing machine when you get home