Still, sneezing happens and an astronaut needs to be prepared when it does, especially if they're wrapped up in a spacesuit tighter than an Egyptian mummy. Astronauts can't just cover their mouths and say, "excuse me." Dave Wolf, a veteran spacewalker, has had to sneeze several times while strolling outside the International Space Station. The key, Wolf says, is to tilt your head low when the urge to sneeze comes. If not, you'll mess up your visor, and there's no way to clear the saliva and mucus off the glass [source: Malik].
Scientists say the implications of all this sneezing, hacking and coughing could prove disastrous to a long spaceflight to Mars or some other celestial body. A long dormant disease or infection in one astronaut could easily reawaken in outer space, infecting the whole crew [sources: Klunger, Orenstein].
What's a space traveler to do? The key is to limit the number of irritants, bacteria and other germs in space. NASA already employs high-tech filters to scrub the recirculated air inside a spacecraft. Astronauts are also armed with disinfecting wipes, surgical masks and respirators. However, that might not be enough. Larger air filters might work, but it's not feasible to use these power-hungry cleaners in space where every volt of electricity is important. Scientists say that perhaps the best way to combat the problem is to vaccinate astronauts for the flu and other diseases, while screening for others.
Infectious disease expert Mermel also recommends wallpapering living and working spaces with antimicrobial material and redesigning the toilet facilities with foot pedals. Like on Earth, the toilets on the ISS are vile and brim with bacteria that can escape into the weightlessness of a space capsule. In fact, in 2011 astronauts had to fix their privy after a foul odor permeated the space station. The astronauts had to tinker with the $90 million dollars' worth of plumbing to get it working right [source: Chow].
Of course, germs are pesky critters and all of these precautions might not work. If that's the case, future space missions should be well-stocked with tissues and cold medicine.
Author's Note: Can you sneeze in space?
Just for the record, it has been hot and humid for the past several days, and my allergies kicked like no one's business. During the writing of this article, I must have sneezed 20 times. It got so bad that I had to bring in a roll of toilet paper because I was running out of tissues. Enjoy!
- Associated Press. "Germs Taken to Space Come Back Deadlier." Fox News. Sept. 25, 2007. (June 26, 2014) http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/09/25/germs-taken-to-space-come-back-deadlier/
- Chow, Denise. "Space Toilet Gives Astronauts Smelly Time In Orbit." Space.com. July 13, 2011. (June 27, 2014) http://www.space.com/12272-space-toilet-trouble-station-astronauts-unpacking.html
- Howell, Elizabeth. "Apollo 8: First Around the Moon." Space.com. Aug. 29, 2012. (July 14, 2014) http://www.space.com/17362-apollo-8.html
- Kluger, Jeffrey: "Don't Sneeze in Space: When Astronauts Get Sick." Time. Oct. 22, 2012. (June 25, 2014) http://science.time.com/2012/10/22/dont-sneeze-in-space-when-astronauts-get-sick/
- Malik, Tariq. "What Happens If You Sneeze in Space?" Space.com. July 21, 2009. (June 26, 2014) http://www.space.com/7026-sneeze-space.html
- Orenstein, David. "Preventing infection on long fights." Brown University. Oct. 18, 2012. (June 26, 2014) https://news.brown.edu/articles/2012/10/spacetravel
- The Washington Post. "Anatomy of a Sneeze." (June 25, 2014) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/health/interactives/cold/