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Researchers Say Flu Can Be Spread Through Breathing

Photograph by Twenty20

By now, you've probably already heard that the flu season this year is extra intense, with an unusually large number of people catching it all at the same time. According to the CDC, this is the worst flu season since 2014-2015. Thirty children have already died from it. So, it's no surprise everyone's doing the best they can to try to avoid catching it. As it turns out, we may need to be doing more.

We all know about constantly washing our hands and staying away from the bodily fluids of sick people (i.e., snot, sneezes and all the other gross stuff) but there may be a new way to catch the flu that's far harder to avoid. A new study is claiming that it's now possible to catch the flu just by standing near an infected person and breathing in their infected air.

Yes, the flu virus can be airborne.

Researchers of the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used 142 flu-infected college students and placed them in a special machine—aptly named the Gesundheit II—that collected breath samples that were exhaled as they coughed, sneezed, spoke—or, you know, just breathed.

While they obviously found infectious virus particles in the breath samples of the coughs and sneezes, they also discovered infectious particles in almost a third of the samples that were collected from the sick students simply exhaling.

According to senior author Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, "We found that flu cases contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by breathing, without coughing or sneezing." Basically, "even if you are not coughing, you can still infect other people."

While it's not breaking news that the flu could possibly be airborne, conventional wisdom—and medical experts—have always previously warned the public that it was most likely spread through large aerosol droplets, like those that come from coughing and sneezing. This new study shows evidence that the flu can also spread through small droplets in the air as well.

The bottom line of all this seems to be clear: If you or your child have flu-like symptoms, stay home and avoid contact with as many people as possible. Trust us, everyone will thank you for this.

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