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Can COVID-19 be transmitted by talking?

Could an infected person spread COVID-19 just by talking? That’s one question scientists are asking, and they’re turning to research by UC Davis Professor William Ristenpart for some answers.

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Could an infected person spread COVID-19 just by talking?

That’s one question scientists are asking, and they’re turning to research by a professor at the University of California Davis for some answers.

William Ristenpart's work, done before the novel coronavirus outbreak, focused on influenza and the role speech plays in its transmission.

While Ristenpart said the same research has not yet been done with COVID-19, his work strongly implies that the virus could also potentially be transmitted via respiratory particles when people talk.

Here are five things to know about how that might happen:

1) Respiratory particles are tiny

    The average respiratory particle that people emit when talking is one micron in size.

    For reference, one strand of hair is 50 to 100 microns. A droplet that’s emitted when you sneeze or spit may be about 30 microns.

    But, scientists believe one micron of emission could harbor plenty of virus.

    2) Droplets can travel up to 6 feet

    Droplets emitted when you cough or sneeze travel up to six feet before gravity takes over.

    That’s why health officials tell people to stand six feet apart.

    But, tiny respiratory particles that people emit while talking are light. They stay airborne much longer — and therefore can travel much farther.

    3) Particles can travel through buildings

    Think of a batch of cookies baking or a pot of coffee brewing in a room across a house. The aroma is carried through the building's ventilation so that everyone in the home can eventually smell it.

    That’s how respiratory particle emissions from talking might also be carried through a building.

    4) Super emitters

    Some people emit more particles, and scientists don’t know why.

    Super emitters, as they’re called, come in all shapes and sizes. There doesn’t appear to be any characteristics that identify a super emitter.

    But, scientists do believe that loud talkers may emit more particles than those who speak softly.

    5) Masks can help

    While masks are not foolproof, Ristenpart said it’s better to wear one than not.

    However, if your glasses fog up when you talk with a mask on, you can be sure a lot of particles are escaping. So, you may want to make adjustments to your mask.

    Regardless of whether you’re wearing a mask or not, scientists say you should still stand six feet apart.