Many airborne diseases affect humans. Understanding diseases that spread through the air, and how to prevent and avoid them, is important.
There are several treatment options, as well, which people need to know if they catch an airborne disease.
Simple measures, such as staying home when sick, reducing contact with people who are sick, and other prevention methods, are also looked at in this article.
Fast facts on airborne diseases
- These illnesses, including colds, are transmitted through the air.
- Many airborne diseases are common and can have mild or severe symptoms.
- Prevention tips include good ventilation to swap indoor and outdoor air.
- Ventilation methods, such as opening a window or using fans, help to exchange dirty air.
- Treatment for less serious airborne diseases includes rest and fluids.
Airborne diseases are illnesses spread by tiny pathogens in the air.
These can be bacteria, fungi, or viruses, but they are all transmitted through airborne contact.
In most cases, an airborne disease is contracted when someone breathes in infected air.
And a person also spreads the disease through their breath, particularly by sneezing and coughing, and through phlegm.
These facts make controlling these diseases more difficult.
Particles that cause airborne diseases are small enough to cling to the air. They hang on dust particles, moisture droplets, or on the breath until they are picked up. They are also acquired by contact with bodily fluids, such as mucus or phlegm.
Once the pathogens are inside the body, they multiply until someone has the disease.
Common airborne diseases include:
- The common cold: The condition called “a cold” is usually caused by a rhinovirus. There are many rhinoviruses, and the strains change to make it easier to infect humans.
- Varicella zoster: This virus causes chickenpox and spreads easily among young children. The rash is typically widespread on the body and made up of small red spots that turn into itchy blisters, which scab over in time. Chickenpox is spread for about 48 hours before a rash shows, which is how it infects others so successfully. It is usually spread through the air or by touching the rash.
- Mumps: This virus affects the glands just below the ears, causing swelling and, in some cases, loss of hearing. Vaccination is considered important to prevent the disease.
- Measles: This illness is caused by contact with a person who has the measles virus, or by inhaling particles from their sneezes or cough. As with mumps, vaccination is essential for preventing the spread of this disease.
- Whooping cough (pertussis): This is a contagious, bacterial illness that causes the airways to swell. The hacking cough that results is persistent and generally treated with antibiotics early on to prevent damage.
Uncommon airborne diseases include:
- Anthrax: This is a bacterial disease that infects the body when a person inhales anthrax spores. It causes nausea and flu symptoms. Inhaled anthrax is difficult to diagnose because it resembles other diseases such as flu. Anthrax is treated with antibiotics to stop it worsening.
- Diphtheria: A rare bacterial disease, diphtheria damages the respiratory system and attacks the heart, kidneys, and nerves. Its rarity may be due to widespread vaccination. Diphtheria can be treated with antibiotics.
- Meningitis: Meningitis swells the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. It is a bacterial or viral infection, but is also caused by an injury or fungal infection. Common symptoms include a persistent headache, fever, and skin rash.
The length of an illness caused by a common airborne disease can vary from a few days to weeks, but it is usually dealt with easily. Uncommon airborne diseases may require additional treatment.
Airborne diseases are wipespread and easily treatable, in most cases. Complete prevention is difficult, but there are some ways to reduce exposure to the pathogens that cause them.
Hygiene and sanitary habits
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services suggest that carrying out good sanitary habits can greatly reduce the risk of transmitting airborne diseases.
Wearing a hospital mask in public, and covering sneezes and coughs with an elbow or tissue, are some of the good habits that are recommended.
Regular hand-washing can also help lower the spread of bodily fluids that may contain disease-causing germs.
Ventilation and air management
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend increasing ventilation to help exchange air between the inside and outside of a building.
In an unventilated area, pathogens, pollutants, and moisture can build up to unsafe levels. Cleaning the air with a filter is another part of keeping an area as free of pollutants and pathogens as possible.
A few basic filtering methods include mechanical air filters, UV purification, HEPA filters, and ion generators.
Many airborne diseases have symptoms similar to the common cold or influenza. They include:
- muscle and body aches
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
- slight body aches or headaches
- sinus pressure
Some people also experience a low fever or general sluggishness with these symptoms.
It is important for people to talk to a doctor as soon as they experience symptoms to avoid any complications and to begin treatment.
Symptoms of the common cold can be treated, but the illness tends to go away without treatment. In the case of chickenpox, the immune system usually deals with the virus on its own.
While airborne diseases are common, serious complications are much more rare and normal vaccinations reduce the risk, substantially.