Airborne viruses are capable of becoming suspended in the air, typically when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. They can then be inhaled by unsuspecting individuals resulting in new infections. Airborne viruses can affect both animals and humans.
A virus that is airborne tends to spread easily and may be harder to control than pathogens—microscopic causes of disease—that are spread other ways.1
Types of Airborne Viruses
The type and number of airborne viruses are astronomical. Some viruses, such as those that cause the common cold, are capable of mutating (changing) quickly. For this reason, the following list is not comprehensive, but meant to give examples of some of the most common types of airborne viruses:2
(cause common cold symptoms, but are not the only viruses that cause colds)
- Influenza viruses (type A, type B, H1N1)
- Varicella viruses (cause chickenpox)
- Measles virus
- Mumps virus
- Hantavirus (a rare virus that can be transmitted from rodents to humans)4
- Viral meningitis
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)
Some viruses, including coronaviruses (COVID-19), have not been scientifically proven to be airborne transmissible.1
Airborne Illnesses Caused by Bacteria
There are certain kinds of airborne illnesses that are caused by bacteria, like anthrax disease. Symptoms and treatment will vary depending on the pathogen, but some of these illnesses can be treated with antibiotics and vaccines.
If your healthcare provider suspects an airborne virus, they may take a saliva sample by swabbing your throat. Blood tests, or the analysis of other bodily fluids, are sometimes helpful in diagnosing airborne viruses.
Generally, airborne viruses cannot be treated with medication. However, if the type of airborne virus you’ve contracted is the flu, antiviral medications such as Tamiflu can shorten its length if taken within 48 hours of symptom onset.
Many over-the-counter medications are used to manage the symptoms caused by airborne viruses. For example, body aches, sore throat, and fever can be managed using over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen.5
Cough and cold medications may also be used to manage symptoms but should be used with caution, particularly if you are taking other medications. They should not be given to children under 2.6
Your body needs adequate rest to recover from an airborne virus. Stay at home and get plenty of sleep. Do not go to work or to school.5
In some cases, antiviral medications may be prescribed. For example, there are four FDA-approved antivirals sometimes given to shorten the duration and severity of influenza infections:7
In severe cases, antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent secondary infections such as pneumonia. Secondary infections can occur because your immune system is already weakened from the viral infection. Secondary infections can sometimes be more dangerous than the initial airborne viral infection.
How Airborne Viruses Are Transmitted
Airborne viruses are small enough to essentially become aerosolized. An infected individual can emit them through a cough, sneeze, breathing, and talking.
A susceptible person is someone who has not established immunity to the virus through vaccination or previous infection, or who may have an underlying illness or a weakened immune system that makes them likely to get an infection.2
Some airborne viruses can live on surfaces for an hour or two after leaving the body. Then, infections can be transmitted by touching the surface and rubbing your eyes, nose, or mouth.2
In general, most airborne viruses are pretty unstable once they leave the body of their host. However, droplets of infected body fluids cannot be underestimated in the role of transmission, and precautions to avoid infection via this route are absolutely necessary.
Weather is an important factor in the transmission of any airborne illness. This is why many of these diseases have a season. The flu, for example, usually peaks during months when it is cold outside and people may be confined indoors with poor ventilation.
Additionally, ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is harmful to infectious particles, so airborne viruses are less infectious during long summer days with plenty of sunshine. Rainfall and humidity levels also play a role, with high humidity levels making it easier for airborne diseases to spread.8
How to Protect Yourself From Airborne Viruses
Vaccinations exist for airborne viruses such as measles, mumps, and varicella. Vaccines have been vital in reducing the number of infections and deaths from these viruses. The best way to protect yourself or others is to become vaccinated.9
Good ventilation is essential in preventing the spread of airborne viruses. In modern hospitals, high-tech ventilation systems turn over the air at a high rate to prevent the spread of infection. Natural ventilation using doors and windows can also be helpful in some situations (particularly residential areas where pollution or insects are not a concern).
Properly maintaining the ventilation system in your home or adding special filters may also help to prevent the spread of illness.10
As with all infectious diseases, proper hygiene is essential in preventing the spread of airborne viruses. In particular, always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands frequently and stay at home when you are sick.9
It is estimated that you can breathe in airborne viruses easily if you are within about 6 feet of an infected individual. It’s a good idea to maintain a healthy distance from anyone known to be infected with these viruses.11
Many people wonder if surgical masks or other face masks will prevent them from getting an airborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend the routine wearing of any type of mask for healthy people outside of the healthcare setting for this purpose. However, those who are already ill can wear a face mask to protect others from getting ill.
Past Outbreaks of Airborne Viruses
Prior to the development of a vaccine in 1963 for the measles, that particular airborne virus was incredibly contagious. It caused an estimated 3 to 4 million infections in the United States. Of those infected, an estimated 400 to 500 died, another 48,000 had to be hospitalized, and roughly 1,000 experienced a dangerous complication called encephalitis (swelling of the brain).12
In 1918 the world experienced the most deadly pandemic in modern history. Known as the Spanish flu, it was caused by an influenza virus, H1N1. An estimated third of the world’s population became infected and the virus killed approximately 50 million people worldwide.13
On the flip side, another airborne illness, the common cold, fails to inspire significant fear among the public. Most people have experienced several colds in their lifetime and symptoms rarely become serious.
Most cases of infection involving colds and flu—two of the most common airborne viruses listed above—produce annoying symptoms that can be treated at home with fluids and rest. Antiviral drugs may be used in more serious cases, and hospitalization may be required if dehydration or breathing problems occur. The age and underlying health of an individual also plays an important role in how seriously ill someone becomes.