Now here's a study that IS something to sneeze about.

A researcher at the University of Alberta has made it his life's work to unravel the mysteries of the sneeze. And he's already busted some myths about the rapid-fire sternutation.

Dr. Julian Tang

Dr. Julian Tang, an "applied fluid mechanics" researcher, says the sneeze is actually much less powerful than previously believed. In short: fear coughs more. (Supplied)

"There's not much data on sneezing out there," said Dr. Julian Tang, who is also a virologist at the Alberta Provincial Laboratory for Public Health.

Tang says the conventional belief, developed in the 1950s by American biologist William Firth Wells, is that the fluid from a sneeze travels at about 100 metres per second — or 360 kilometres per hour.

The reality is that the sneeze is much slower than previously believed. Using a sophisticated thermal imaging machine developed in Singapore, and black pepper to make volunteers sneeze, Tang was able to more accurately measure the speed of the human reflex.

"We got much lower velocities of about four to five meters per second for sneeze velocities. Not much different from a cough."

In fact, Tang, who has a PhD in "applied fluid mechanics," says material from coughs has been measured as fast as 20 metres per second.

Tang, who moved to Edmonton one year ago from the UK, says his findings have important applications in the prevention of infection, especially following outbreaks in the last decade of SARS, Avian Influenza and H1N1.

For one, Tang says coughs may be more infectious than sneezes, because the material comes from the chest. He says his data also suggests staying at least two metres from someone who is sick and coughing or sneezing will reduce the chances of getting sick.

As for the best way to protect others when you sneeze, Tang suggests wearing a mask, as is often practiced in Asia, followed by using a tissue.

While many health authorities suggest sneezing or coughing into your elbow, Tang says that may not be the best.

"What tends to happen with that, is that you tend to get a split. So when you cough or sneeze into your elbow, [the mucus or saliva] splits — it goes down or up."