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Airborne Diseases – Types, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

Airborne diseases are those that are caused by pathogens and are transmitted through the air. They are diseases of significant importance due to how quickly and easily they spread.

The pathogens (causal agents) of these diseases may be transmitted in dust, liquid, or aerosols. These aerosols may be generated from infected sources such as bodily infections from an infected human or animal.

These particles may remain suspended in the air long enough to travel to new sites of infection. Air pollution plays an important role in the transmission of these pathogens.

These pollutants exacerbate the effects of the allergens or pathogens and cause inflammation in the nose, sinuses, and lungs, affecting the entire respiratory system or even the rest of the body.

Sore throat, coughing, and congestion of the sinus are examples of the inflammation of the upper respiratory tract. Some common airborne diseases include chickenpox, anthrax, measles, smallpox, mumps, and tuberculosis.

Airborne diseases can also affect animals. Newcastle disease and Avian influenza are diseases that affect domestic poultry around the world. They are transmitted through the air.

How are they transmitted?

The occurrence of airborne diseases is any given area depends on the prevailing environmental and social conditions of the area.

Climatic or ecological conditions that are majorly responsible for airborne diseases are temperature and relative humidity. Other factors that affect transmission are the speed and direction of the wind and rainfall.

Certain climatic conditions favor the spread of these diseases. For example, the influenza virus is most common in the northern hemisphere during cold weather, while meningitis tends to peak during the dry season in the southern hemisphere.

Socioeconomic and living conditions play an essential role in the spread of these diseases. Airborne diseases spread rapidly in urban areas and cities with enclosed quarters of buildings and little to no ventilation, compared to rural settlements and outskirts.

Also, nearness to large water bodies can predispose a population to outbreaks of airborne diseases. Poor waste management systems in developing countries, especially in rural areas, may cause the proliferation of infectious bacteria that can be transmitted through the air.

Poor ventilation and poor working conditions can also foster the conditions for airborne diseases.

Common Airborne Diseases


Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. It is a common and very contagious airborne disease because it could be spread easily before the symptoms of the disease have been observed.

Influenza remains contagious for up to seven days. A weakened immune system may cause the disease to remain in the system for much longer.

There are many strains of the disease, with Influenza A and B being the most common.

The Common Cold

The common cold is another viral infection that affects the respiratory system – primarily the nose. As with all viral diseases, the common cold has no cure. Most adults become infected on average two or three times a year.

Signs and symptoms of the disease include coughing, sneezing, headaches, and fever. There are many viruses responsible for the illness, with the rhinovirus being the most common cause.


Measles, also known as rubeola, is a contagious viral infection that begins in the respiratory tract. The rubeola virus can remain active in the air and on surfaces for up to two hours, which makes it particularly infectious.

An infected person can affect others for up to four days before and after the rash appears. Most people have lifelong immunity to the disease after being infected.

Measles is a common cause of death among children globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were about 110,000 measles-related deaths worldwide in 2017, with most of the children being under 5.

Symptoms include rash, cough, red eyes, white spots in the mouth, fever, and runny nose.


Chickenpox is an airborne disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The condition can be contagious for up to two days before the telltale rash begins to appear.

It spreads through the air via air droplets from the coughs and sneezes of an infected person and touching a contaminated surface. It takes about 21 days after exposure for the disease to develop.

Chickenpox usually confers lifelong immunity to those who have been infected, and the virus becomes dormant. In the event that the virus becomes reactivated later in life, the infected person would develop a painful skin condition known as shingles.

Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis, also known as consumption, is an airborne disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease generally affects the lungs but can be spread to other parts of the body.

Tuberculosis does not spread easily; you have to be in close contact with the infected person for a very long time to be infected. People can be infected without becoming ill or spreading the disease to others.

Tuberculosis is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 1.5 million people died from the disease in 2018.

Tuberculosis can be treated and prevented. However, people with a weakened immune system have the greatest risk of developing the disease.

When the bacteria become active, they proliferate rapidly and attack the lungs where they can spread through the bloodstream and lymph nodes to other organs of the body.


Mumps is another airborne infection caused by the Mumps rubulavirus that can be spread before symptoms begin to appear and up to five days after. It is a viral infection that affects the salivary gland.

It is spread through the air via coughs and sneezes of an infected person and by touching a contaminated surface such as clothing and blankets. It used to be very common worldwide, but the rates have declined due to vaccination.

Mumps is a childhood disease, but it can also affect adults. Symptoms include pain in the neck, headaches, difficulty swallowing, swollen neck, swollen salivary glands, or lymph nodes.

Whooping Cough

Also known as Pertussis or 100-day cough is a highly contagious airborne disease caused by a bacterial infection, which causes the airways to swell.

It is characterized by a severe and persistent hacking cough. Whooping cough is transmitted by airborne respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes, by saliva and by skin-to-skin contact.

General Symptoms of Airborne Diseases

The following symptoms usually characterize airborne diseases:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Congestion
  • Inflammation of the nose, throat, sinuses, or lungs
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Sneezing
  • Headache
  • Swollen glands
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Body aches

Treatment of Airborne Diseases

Most airborne diseases require plenty of fluids and rest. Further treatment is dependent on the diagnosis of the infection.

Viral diseases like chickenpox and measles have no treatment. There are, however, medications that can help relieve the symptoms.

Bacterial airborne diseases like whooping cough and tuberculosis can be treated with antibiotics. Hospitalization may also be necessary.

Prevention of Airborne Diseases

Practicing healthy sanitary habits such as regular washing of hands and keeping your environment clean can reduce the risk of transmitting airborne disease.

Pathogens, pollutants, and moisture build up in unventilated areas. Increasing ventilation helps facilitate the exchange of air between the inside and outside of a building and reduce the risk of infection.

Victor Anunobi
Victor Anunobi is an environmentalist, writer and movie enthusiast living in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. He enjoys long walks, food and alternative music.

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