What Are Airborne Diseases? (2023)

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, you may have become more conscious about the air you breathe and the surfaces you touch. Disease transmission can happen in different ways, but the most unpredictable method is via airborne transmission.

There are very few diseases that can be transmitted through the air. Airborne diseases linger in dust particles and respiratory droplets, which are eventually inhaled by other people. In fact, you don’t need to be in the same room as a sick person to contract an airborne disease.

How Airborne Transmission Works

Airborne diseases are bacteria or viruses that are most commonly transmitted through small respiratory droplets. These droplets are expelled when someone with the airborne disease sneezes, coughs, laughs, or otherwise exhales in some way. These infectious vehicles can travel along air currents, linger in the air, or cling to surfaces, where they are eventually inhaled by someone else.

Airborne transmission can occur over relatively long distances and spans of time. If you go into the bathroom that someone coughed in minutes before, it could be a danger. This makes it possible for airborne diseases to infect larger numbers of people and more difficult to determine the causes due to a lack of person-to-person contact.

Airborne transmission has varying capabilities. Airborne diseases can travel distances greater than 6 feet and remain infectious in the air from minutes to hours. This largely depends on the type of ventilation and preventative measures inside the building.

Airborne Diseases

Few diseases are predominantly airborne. Most diseases that spread through the air are also contagious through larger respiratory droplet transmission. This type of infection occurs when people are within 6 feet of each other.


Measles is one of the most contagious diseases, affecting up to 90% of the people close to a person with the disease. It’s a virus that lives in the mucus of the nose and throat and is spread through coughing and sneezing. The measles virus survives for up to 2 hours in the air once the infected person leaves an area.‌

Measles symptoms. Symptoms show within 1-2 weeks after infection. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Red and watery eyes

Once symptoms begin to show up, a measles rash occurs that eventually covers you from head to toe. This rash appears as numerous red marks all over the skin.

Measles risks. Children under 5, adults over 20, pregnant women, and immuno-compromised people are more likely to develop complications and more severe symptoms from measles. These include:

  • Ear infections
  • Diarrhea
  • Pneumonia
  • Encephalitis (brain swelling)

Treatment. There are no specified treatments for measles. You can take fever reducers and use home remedies to relieve symptoms. However, resting and protecting those around you are the best treatment methods.

Vaccination and elimination. Most people in the United States are vaccinated and protected from measles. The CDC has dubbed measles as being “eliminated” in the United States, meaning U.S. citizens won’t develop measles on their own, although there have been small, periodic outbreaks in unvaccinated areas.. People from unvaccinated countries can still bring measles to the U.S. and infect someone.

Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis, or TB, is a bacterial disease of the lungs and throat. When a person with TB coughs, speaks, or laughs, the TB bacteria are released into the air. TB is not transmitted through touching, kissing, or sharing food.

Symptoms of TB. Symptoms vary depending on where the bacteria have settled in your body. Common symptoms include:

  • A bad cough lasting longer than 3 weeks
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood or phlegm
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Night sweats

Someone can be infected with TB bacteria but not develop TB disease until years later. This is typically dependent on their immune system. People who have recently been infected with TB bacteria and people with weakened immune systems are at a greater risk for developing TB disease.

TB Disease Treatment. There are 10 drugs approved by the FDA that can be used to treat TB disease. Using them as prescribed is crucial to recovering and treating TB. Improper use of drug treatments can lead to the bacteria persisting and becoming more resistant to TB drugs.

Other Diseases

Measles and TB are airborne-exclusive diseases. There are several other diseases that spread through respiratory droplets, which can exist either in the air or on surfaces. These diseases include:

Preventing Airborne Diseases

Most diseases can be traced back to a person’s home or workplace. Practicing healthy behaviors while indoors is crucial for preventing the spread of airborne diseases. Some of the best and simplest preventative measures are:

  • Cough or sneeze into a handkerchief or into your elbow.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Regularly clean common surfaces, like doorknobs, counters, handles, and more.‌

Additionally, make sure indoor locations have proper ventilation that can keep bacteria and viruses out of the air. Stagnant air encourages diseases to spread.


What Are Airborne Diseases? ›

Airborne diseases are bacteria or viruses that are most commonly transmitted through small respiratory droplets. These droplets are expelled when someone with the airborne disease sneezes, coughs, laughs, or otherwise exhales in some way.

What is the main cause of airborne disease? ›

Airborne diseases are caused by pathogenic microbes small enough to be discharged from an infected person via coughing, sneezing, laughing and close personal contact or aerosolization of the microbe. The discharged microbes remain suspended in the air on dust particles, respiratory and water droplets.

What are common symptoms of airborne diseases? ›

Shortness of breath: Some airborne diseases, such as COVID-19, can cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Fever: Many airborne diseases can cause fever, which is the body's natural response to infection. Fatigue: Feeling tired or lethargic can be a symptom of many airborne diseases.

What are some droplet diseases? ›

Examples of droplet spread diseases:
  • common cold.
  • flu.
  • meningococcal disease.
  • rubella.

Which of the following is not an airborne disease? ›

Cholera is a bacterial disease usually spread through contaminated water.

What are 4 diseases caused by air? ›

The most common diseases caused by air pollution include ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections in children.

How do you get rid of airborne diseases? ›

Preventing Airborne Diseases

Cough or sneeze into a handkerchief or into your elbow. Wash your hands frequently. Regularly clean common surfaces, like doorknobs, counters, handles, and more.

How can airborne diseases be prevented? ›

Wearing a mask can help to prevent the spread of airborne diseases, particularly COVID-19. Masks can help to trap respiratory droplets that may contain the virus, preventing them from spreading to others. Proper ventilation can help to reduce the concentration of airborne pathogens in indoor spaces.

What is the most common airborne allergy? ›

Common airborne allergens include dust, pollen, cigarette smoke and pet dander (particles of shed skin and fur). Airborne allergens can trigger hay fever (allergic rhinitis) symptoms, which can disturb your child's sleep and affect their behaviour.

What diseases can be spread by sneezing? ›

Covering coughs and sneezes and keeping hands clean can help prevent the spread of serious respiratory illnesses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough, and COVID-19. Germs can be easily spread by: Coughing, sneezing, or talking.

Is droplet and airborne the same? ›

Airborne transmission occurs when bacteria or viruses travel in droplet nuclei that become aerosolized. Healthy people can inhale the infectious droplet nuclei into their lungs.

What type of bacteria is airborne? ›

Other Gram-Negative Bacteria

Escherichia coli, Pantoea (Enterobacter) agglomerans, Pseudomonas spp., and Acinetobacter spp. commonly isolated in cow barns, pig houses, and poultry barns are among the airborne Gram-negative bacteria associated with animal facilities that can result in human disease.

Is MRSA airborne? ›

Moreover, MRSA may be transferred from one patient to another by airborne transmission and by direct hand-to-hand contact.

Which airborne disease mainly affects lungs? ›

Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious illness that mainly affects the lungs. The germs that cause tuberculosis are a type of bacteria. Tuberculosis can spread when a person with the illness coughs, sneezes or sings. This can put tiny droplets with the germs into the air.

Where does airborne bacteria come from? ›

Disease-causing Gram-negative bacteria are also dispersed into the air from wastewater treatment plants, vegetable and herb processing, and recycling facilities. These organisms can cause a variety of health problems, especially to the young, elderly, and immunocompromised persons.

What airborne diseases are caused by climate change? ›

Less obvious but more certain and immediate than future droughts and floods, the escalating use of air conditioning (AC) globally is directly resulting in conditions favoring increased person-to-person transmission of airborne infections such as tuberculosis (TB), influenza (flu), and measles.

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