What Are Airborne Diseases?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 14, 2023
4 min read

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, you may have become more conscious about the air you breathe and the surfaces you touch. Disease transmission can happen in different ways, but the most unpredictable method is via airborne transmission.

There are very few diseases that can be transmitted through the air. Airborne diseases linger in dust particles and respiratory droplets, which are eventually inhaled by other people. In fact, you don’t need to be in the same room as a sick person to contract an airborne disease. 

Airborne diseases are bacteria or viruses that are most commonly transmitted through small respiratory droplets. These droplets are expelled when someone with the airborne disease sneezes, coughs, laughs, or otherwise exhales in some way. These infectious vehicles can travel along air currents, linger in the air, or cling to surfaces, where they are eventually inhaled by someone else. 

Airborne transmission can occur over relatively long distances and spans of time. If you go into the bathroom that someone coughed in minutes before, it could be a danger. This makes it possible for airborne diseases to infect larger numbers of people and more difficult to determine the causes due to a lack of person-to-person contact. 

Airborne transmission has varying capabilities. Airborne diseases can travel distances greater than 6 feet and remain infectious in the air from minutes to hours. This largely depends on the type of ventilation and preventative measures inside the building. 

Few diseases are predominantly airborne. Most diseases that spread through the air are also contagious through larger respiratory droplet transmission. This type of infection occurs when people are within 6 feet of each other. 

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases, affecting up to 90% of the people close to a person with the disease. It’s a virus that lives in the mucus of the nose and throat and is spread through coughing and sneezing. The measles virus survives for up to 2 hours in the air once the infected person leaves an area.‌

Measles symptoms. Symptoms show within 1-2 weeks after infection. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Red and watery eyes

Once symptoms begin to show up, a measles rash occurs that eventually covers you from head to toe. This rash appears as numerous red marks all over the skin.

Measles risks. Children under 5, adults over 20, pregnant women, and immuno-compromised people are more likely to develop complications and more severe symptoms from measles. These include:

  • Ear infections
  • Diarrhea
  • Pneumonia
  • Encephalitis (brain swelling)

Treatment. There are no specified treatments for measles. You can take fever reducers and use home remedies to relieve symptoms. However, resting and protecting those around you are the best treatment methods. 

Vaccination and elimination. Most people in the United States are vaccinated and protected from measles. The CDC has dubbed measles as being “eliminated” in the United States, meaning U.S. citizens won’t develop measles on their own, although there have been small, periodic outbreaks in unvaccinated areas.. People from unvaccinated countries can still bring measles to the U.S. and infect someone. 

Tuberculosis, or TB, is a bacterial disease of the lungs and throat. When a person with TB coughs, speaks, or laughs, the TB bacteria are released into the air. TB is not transmitted through touching, kissing, or sharing food.  

Symptoms of TB. Symptoms vary depending on where the bacteria have settled in your body. Common symptoms include:

  • A bad cough lasting longer than 3 weeks
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood or phlegm
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Night sweats 

Someone can be infected with TB bacteria but not develop TB disease until years later. This is typically dependent on their immune system. People who have recently been infected with TB bacteria and people with weakened immune systems are at a greater risk for developing TB disease. 

TB Disease Treatment. There are 10 drugs approved by the FDA that can be used to treat TB disease. Using them as prescribed is crucial to recovering and treating TB. Improper use of drug treatments can lead to the bacteria persisting and becoming more resistant to TB drugs. 

Measles and TB are airborne-exclusive diseases. There are several other diseases that spread through respiratory droplets, which can exist either in the air or on surfaces. These diseases include:

Most diseases can be traced back to a person’s home or workplace. Practicing healthy behaviors while indoors is crucial for preventing the spread of airborne diseases. Some of the best and simplest preventative measures are:

  • Cough or sneeze into a handkerchief or into your elbow.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Regularly clean common surfaces, like doorknobs, counters, handles, and more.‌

Additionally, make sure indoor locations have proper ventilation that can keep bacteria and viruses out of the air. Stagnant air encourages diseases to spread.