Flu virus spread by breathing, study finds


Most people believe that the influenza virus is spread through the coughs and sneezes of infected people, but new research published Thursday suggests that the flu virus is spread more easily than previously thought.

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Medical professionals believe that the virus is spread most often by “droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But researchers studying how the virus spreads recently found large amounts of the virus in the breath of people suffering from the flu, according to the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.

>> Related: Influenza surveillance map: Where is the flu in my state? 

The researchers -- from the University of Maryland, San Jose State University, Missouri Western State University and the University of California, Berkeley -- published their findings Thursday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We found that flu cases contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by breathing, without coughing or sneezing,” said Donald Milton, professor of environmental health in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead researcher for the study.

Milton and his team examined the virus content in the breath of 142 people who were diagnosed with flu as they were breathing normally, speaking, coughing and sneezing. Researchers found that a majority of those who participated in the study had enough of the infectious virus in just their regular, exhaled breath to possibly infect another person.

A review of the data collected from the coughs and sneezes of infected participants showed that neither action appeared to have a large impact on whether or not the virus was spread.

>> Related: 11 things parents need to know about the flu, the vaccine, how long kids need to stay out of school  

“People with flu generate infectious aerosols (tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time), even when they are not coughing and especially during the first days of illness,” Milton said.

The study’s authors said the results highlighted how necessary it is for people who have the flu to stay at home.

>> Related: What is the H3N2 flu and how bad is flu season this year? 

“The study findings suggest that keeping surfaces clean, washing our hands all the time, and avoiding people who are coughing does not provide complete protection from getting the flu,” said Sheryl Ehrman, the dean of the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering at San Jose State University. “Staying home and out of public spaces could make a difference in the spread of the influenza virus.”


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