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What does it mean when a virus is airborne?

You can catch some viruses by doing something that is essential to your everyday life, something that you do all the time. You can catch some viruses by just breathing. These are called airborne viruses.

Airborne pathogens (viruses, germs, bacteria, diseases, etc.) can spread when people with certain infections cough, sneeze, or talk. This results in their nasal and throat secretions moving out of their body and into the air. Some viruses or bacteria take flight and hang in the air or land on other people or surfaces.

When you breathe in these microscopic pathogens in the air, they enter through your eyes, nose, or mouth and permeate your mucus membranes and make a home within your body. You can also pick up pathogens when you touch a surface that they are on, and then touch your own eyes, nose, or mouth.


Because these pathogens travel in the air, they’re hard to control.

Take for example, influenza. Many people have had some experience with the flu or with flu-like symptoms. It spreads so easily because it’s contagious about a day before you notice the first symptoms, and remains so for another 5 to 7 days, according to an article written by Ann Pietrangelo, reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D., R.N., CRNA. Indeed, if you have a weakened immune system for any reason, you can spread it to others longer than that. There are many strains of the flu, and they are constantly changing, which makes it difficult for your body to develop immunities.

Another well-known airborne virus is chickenpox. Caused by the varicella-zoster virus, it can be spread for a day or two prior to the well-known rash begins to appear and takes up to 21 days after exposure for the disease to develop. Most people get chickenpox only once, and then the virus goes dormant. Should the virus reactivate later in life, you get a painful skin condition called shingles. Another interesting thing to note is that if you haven’t had chickenpox, you can contract it from someone with shingles.


Mumps is another very contagious viral disease. It can be spread before any symptoms appear and for up to 5 days after symptoms start. Mumps used to be quite common in the United States, but rates have declined by 99 percent due to vaccination - according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From January 1 to January 25, 2020, 70 cases in the United States were reported to the CDC, with outbreaks mainly occurring in densely populated environments.

Airborne diseases usually result in one or more of the following symptoms:

inflammation of your nose, throat, sinuses, or lungs
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • congestion
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • swollen glands
  • headache
  • body aches
  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • fatigue

Overall, airborne diseases happen all around the world and can affect anyone. It is well-known that they spread very easily in crowded spaces and in close quarters, such as schools and nursing homes. Large outbreaks tend to happen in very crowded conditions and in places where hygiene and sanitation systems are poor. Incidences are usually lower in countries where vaccines are widely available and affordable.


Health Science