The nature of airborne diseases is what makes them so tricky. They are caused by disease-carrying germs that are suspended in the air. These pathogens enter the air through tiny water droplets that are emitted by a sick person when they talk, cough, sneeze, and breathe. Because these airborne pathogens are microscopic and typically invisible to the eye, we never know when we might be breathing infected air.
In this blog, learn more about the most common airborne illnesses, how they are passed on, and how you can protect yourself from them.
How are Airborne Illnesses Transmitted?
Airborne diseases are passed on to another individual when a vulnerable person, particularly someone who has a weakened immune system or has not developed antibodies against a certain disease, comes into contact with these infected water droplets. This entails breathing in infected air or touching an infected surface and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.
One of the tricky things about airborne viruses and bacteria is that they can travel relatively long distances and remain in the air or on a surface for some time. So, even if you don’t personally encounter a person who is sick, you may still get infected. For example, if you enter an unventilated room after them or touch an unsterilized surface that they touched, there is a possibility that you can contract the illness.
The rate of transmission of airborne diseases can also depend on the season. For example, a 2013 study found that the seasonal flu peaks during “cold-dry and humid-rainy” conditions. Furthermore, there tends to be poorer indoor air quality during colder seasons as people stay inside with doors and windows closed.
The Most Common Airborne Diseases
There would be countless if we were to consider both current and eradicated airborne diseases, so below is a shortlist of the seven most common airborne diseases today.
It’s called the “common cold” for a good reason. In the U.S., adults experience two to three bouts of colds every year and school-aged children even more. This amounts to millions of cases annually. Typically, people recover within seven to 10 days. But for those who have existing respiratory conditions and comprised immune systems, a cold can turn into more serious ailments like pneumonia or bronchitis.
One of the reasons why the flu is one of the most common airborne diseases is that it’s highly contagious for a relatively long period. You can be contagious about a day before you exhibit your first symptoms, so you are already a disease carrier without even knowing, and remain contagious for a week.
Additionally, the virus that causes the flu is constantly evolving. This is why it’s recommended to renew your flu vaccine every year.
Caused by the virus varicella-zoster, chickenpox is known for causing skin rashes, typically on the face, torso, and scalp. Part of what makes it a common airborne disease is that a person can be infectious one to two days before the first rash even appears.
People typically only contract chickenpox once. However, if the varicella-zoster virus reactivates in someone who previously had chickenpox, they can develop shingles. Additionally, chickenpox can be caught from someone with shingles.
Mumps is a common viral illness that causes fever, headache, loss of appetite, and exhaustion, but it’s most known to cause swelling of the glands. It’s caused by the virus paramyxovirus and can be transmitted by an infected person before they develop symptoms and up to five days after.
Mumps is no longer as common these days due to vaccination, but it’s still a commonly known airborne disease.
Also caused by the virus paramyxovirus, measles is a respiratory illness that causes coughing, a runny nose, fever, and body rashes. The virus can survive in the air or on surfaces for up to two hours. If you have contracted the virus, you can infect others up to four days before you develop symptoms, and four days after rashes appear. Similar to chickenpox, most people only contract measles once in their lives.
Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, the disease caused epidemics about every two to three years and caused approximately 2.6 million deaths a year. But after the vaccine, there was a significant drop in measles-related deaths. For example, between 2000 and 2018, the measles vaccine helped prevent about 23.2 million deaths. Still, measles is considered a serious disease, particularly for children. In 2018, this illness caused over 140,000 deaths, primarily among young children under five years old.
Also known as TB, tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs, and is typically contracted when a person comes in close contact with someone who has had it for a long time. It’s possible to contract the infection but not exhibit symptoms and not transmit it to others.
According to the American Lung Association, approximately 1.8 billion people worldwide have tuberculosis. However, only an estimated 10 million have active TB, while the rest are latent TB.
People with a higher risk of developing active TB are those with compromised or developing immune systems such as infants and young children, people with chronic conditions and autoimmune treatments, those with HIV/AIDS, and cancer patients undergoing chemo.
Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
This illness got its unique name because of the “whooping” sound that is normally made when someone gasps for air after a coughing fit. It can last up to 10 weeks or longer, earning its other nickname, “100-day cough.”
As one of the most common airborne diseases, there are about 24.1 million cases of pertussis annually and approximately 160,700 deaths. However, serious cases can be prevented through vaccination.
How Can You Protect Yourself from Airborne Illnesses?
You may not be able to completely avoid the most common airborne illnesses, but there are a few ways to fortify your health measures and reduce your risk of contracting them.
- Improve indoor air quality with an air purifier utilizing a medical-grade HEPA 13 filter that can trap even microscopic, disease-causing germs.
- Promote air circulation by opening windows and doors to prevent airborne pathogens from remaining inside the home.
- Practice proper hygiene such as correct handwashing and minimizing touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Wear a mask as needed, particularly if you are feeling unwell. Aside from reducing the spread of disease-causing germs, your immune system may be weakened, causing you to be more vulnerable to other diseases.
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