Researchers create device to analyze how breathing transmits flu virus

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NEW YORK (CBS) New research shows the flu spreads more easily than previously thought. At least 240 schools nationwide are closed Thursday and more than 4,500 hundred deaths have been linked to this season's virus. Researchers at the University of Maryland have created a one-of-a-kind device that collects virus samples from your breath and then tracks how the flu is transmitted from person to person.

All you do is sit, breathe and let the machine do the work. It's called the Gesundheit II and it's the brainchild of University of Maryland professor Dr. Donald Milton.

"It just is pulling all of the air from around your face at a fast enough rate that we collect everything but not so fast that it feels like there's a breeze," Milton said.

The device is being used to collect and analyze the flu virus in an exhaled breath. With those virus samples, researchers are trying to track down how the flu spreads.

"The focus has always been on telling people, well, coughing and sneezing is how its transmitted," Milton said.

In 2014, MIT used high-speed imaging to study just how far cough and sneeze droplets, and therefore germs, can spread. But in a CDC study earlier this year, researchers discovered that the flu virus can be transmitted simply by breathing.

"If we understand better how much of the infection is transmitted by air and what the dose in the air is, we can then figure out how to reduce your exposure," Milton said.

They're using student volunteers to study the mechanics of how the bug spreads by swabbing people who come in contact with infected students.

"If I can show that you got the flu from him and it didn't come from his nose but it came from his lung then you've got it by the airborne route - we got the answer," Milton said.

The researchers are hoping to use these findings to create models for better ventilation systems that would make it harder for the flu and other dangerous viruses to spread. For now, the best advice is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, sneeze into your elbow, and stay at home if you're sick.