At the office where I used to work, either the air quality was terrible or half the staff had serious allergies, because it seemed like someone sneezed every 30 seconds or so. Of course, every time someone did sneeze, there’d be a chorus of “Bless you!” from every corner of the office, which eventually made me want to bang my head against my desk. Does that make me a rude person with no respect for social etiquette? Perhaps, but when you think about it, it’s one of the weirdest customs we have. There are varying theories as to the origin of the custom for saying “God bless you” every time someone sneezes. I’ve heard that people used to think sneezes expelled demons, or that the soul was temporarily leaving the body, or simply that a person was getting the plague – all legitimate reasons for blessing a person (and then running away). But no one – at least no one I know – believes these things anymore, so why do we still say it every single time someone sneezes?
Enough about my odd pet peeves, however. While people sneeze for various reasons – allergies, illness, even getting the sun in their eyes – those nasty facial explosions can actually help doctors to diagnose more serious conditions, like asthma for example. Scientists at the University of Surrey have developed a tool called a “sneezometer” that they expect will prove very valuable in the diagnosis of asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, hypopnea, and other potentially serious respiratory conditions.
“Breathing disorders are highly prevalent in the developed and developing world, with one in twelve people in the UK currently receiving treatment for asthma,” said Dr. David Birch, of the University of Surrey’s Aerodynamics and Environmental Flow research group. “The diagnosis and monitoring of respiratory diseases is key to proper treatment and we have now developed a simple, low-cost and non-intrusive diagnostic solution that will make doctors lives easier across the world.”
That solution is a new twist on a traditional spirometer, a device that measures the flow of air entering and exiting the lungs. The sneezometer, as its name suggests, is fast enough to measure the speed and force of a sneeze, which “is something that no other commercially available system can do as inexpensively or effectively,” according to the research team. A device that fast and sensitive can detect the tiniest fluctuations in the flow of breath, fluctuations that could point to a respiratory illness.
“The ability to measure the sensitivity of airflow detection and pull out other information from single breath is very interesting from both a research and clinical perspective,” said Dr. Manasi Nandi, Senior Lecturer in Integrative Pharmacology at King’s College London. “This is currently not picked out with conventional tests, and we have already been using it to mimic testing of asthma.”
The device’s invention came about almost by chance. The Aerodynamics and Environmental Flow research group focuses mostly on the application of fluid dynamics and wind technology for aerospace and environmental engineering, and they were working on a research project involving wind tunnel measurement at the time. However, the respiratory passages are essentially small wind tunnels, if you think about it.
“The spirometer was initially developed to address a tricky flow-measurement problem, but a chance discussion with a health professional revealed the potential for the idea in the healthcare field,” said Dr. Birch.
Once the team realized the technology’s potential for healthcare, the device was developed very quickly. A functional prototype was created within three weeks, with most of it being 3D printed around the electronics.
“By (using 3D printing) we’re able to form all of the internal ductwork, all the little pipes and channels, into the plastic itself, which allows us to make it much smaller,” explained Dr. Birch.
Once the prototype was developed, the researchers applied for – and received – IAA funding. With help from the South East Health Technologies Alliance (SEHTA), the team has produced ten of the devices, which are currently being trialed at King’s College Hospital in London. They’re hoping that the sneezometer could enter full clinical service as early as 2018. Below, you can see Dr. Birch explain the details of the device and what they hope to accomplish with it. Discuss in the 3D Printed Sneezometer forum over at 3DPB.com.