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Airborne Diseases: Definition, Types & Examples

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Instructor: Paula Jacoby-Garrett
Airborne diseases are spread through minute aerosolized particles or droplets in the air. Learn about them through a definition, an understanding of their various types and examples, as well as different ways on how the body fights them off. Updated: 11/18/2021

What Are Airborne Diseases?

Airborne diseases are those caused by pathogens and transmitted through the air as very small or aerosolized particles. Disease-causing pathogens are organisms that spread from an infected person to another through coughing, talking, and sneezing - even breathing and laughing! According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, flu droplets can travel up to six feet away!

Flu droplets in a cough or sneeze can travel up to six feet away!

Smaller, lighter particles are suspended in the air longer than larger and heavier particles. The smaller the particle, the farther down in the respiratory tract that particle can travel. How long these organisms can survive outside the body depends on the type of organism and the conditions of the air, such as its humidity and temperature.

Smaller, lighter particles can stay airborne longer than larger, heavier particles.

There are three main types of organisms that can cause airborne diseases, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Some examples of airborne diseases include the flu, tuberculosis, and valley fever. Chickenpox and the measles can also be caused by airborne pathogens.

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  • 0:01 What Are Airborne Diseases?
  • 1:02 Viruses
  • 2:00 Bacteria
  • 2:24 Fungi
  • 3:14 Pathogens & Bodily Defenses
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Seasonal flu, or influenza, is caused by a highly contagious, constantly changing virus and typically affects people in the winter months. The level of infection varies from the very mild to very serious, and in some cases, may even result in death. Symptoms of the flu include a runny nose, a sore throat, muscle aches, and fatigue.

A member of the coronavirus group, first discovered in 2003, causes severe acute respiratory distress or SARS, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia. This is the same type of virus responsible for the common cold; once its droplets land, they can remain alive for up to six hours. Approximately 2-10 days after exposure, individuals typically experience chills, cough, and fever; headaches and muscle aches are also symptoms of SARS.


The bacteria mycobacterium tuberculosis causes tuberculosis, or TB, which can be treated with prescription drugs. While it can infect any part of the body, it typically affects the lungs. In its latent form, the infected person carries, but shows no sign of disease. Latent TB can become infectious and passed onto others. Symptoms include chest pain, chills, and cough, as well as fever and fatigue.


Fungal spores inhaled into the lungs cause coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever. They're typically found in the deserts of the Southwestern United States, where spores can disperse into the air with construction dust. Some individuals can inhale the spores but never get the disease; those infected may recover on their own or with the help of an antifungal medication. Extreme cases of valley fever can be fatal.

Symptoms of valley fever include fever, cough, fatigue, and headache. At-risk groups include pregnant women and patients undergoing cancer treatments; African Americans and Filipinos may be especially susceptible to valley fever.

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