The flu can be spread just by breathing, new study finds

Flu season is no joke, and this year people are especially nervous about the virus. Now, there’s even more reason to be wary of the flu: It might spread more easily than people realize.

In fact, the flu may be spread just by breathing. That’s the major takeaway from a new University of Maryland study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, researchers captured the flu virus in the exhaled breath of 142 people with confirmed cases of the flu while they breathed naturally, spoke, coughed, and sneezed. Then the researchers assessed the breath for infectiousness. The study participants also provided 218 nose and throat swabs and 218 30-minute samples of their breath on the first, second, and third days after they began experiencing symptoms.

The researchers found that a significant number of flu patients regularly exhaled the virus via aerosol particles that were small enough to cause a risk of airborne transmission. About 48 percent of the 23 fine aerosol samples the researchers collected when people breathed but didn’t cough had detectable levels of the flu, and most of those were infectious (i.e., they could make other people sick).

While most people tend to think that they can catch the flu only by being exposed to droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, or by touching surfaces that have been contaminated with those droplets, the researchers found that that just isn’t the case.

The flu can spread much more easily than was previously thought. (Photo: Getty Images)
The flu can spread much more easily than was previously thought. (Photo: Getty Images)

Before you panic, know this: While the information is surprising to most people, it’s not to the medical community. “We knew that the flu had the capacity to do this, but this study is just showing it’s a real phenomenon,” Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a board-certified infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

The flu is spread most efficiently from person to person when people are within 3 to 6 feet of each other, William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When someone with the flu breathes out, it hovers in the air, and if someone who is within range breathes it in, they are infected,” he explains.

That said, you’re still at the biggest risk of contracting the flu from coughs and sneezes or by touching infected surfaces than you are breathing it in, Sherif Beniameen Mossad, MD, an infectious disease expert at the Cleveland Clinic and professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

To protect yourself during flu season, it’s not too late get a flu shot. While it’s only about 30 percent effective, “any protection is better than no protection,” Mossad says. It’s also a good idea to avoid people who are coughing and sneezing whenever possible, he adds.

Good hand hygiene is also crucial, Schaffner says, and it’s especially important to suds up well after you visit a public place with a lot of people, like a mall or school.

While the study’s findings are a little scary, you shouldn’t freak out over them. This study just helps explain why the flu is so prolific — but it doesn’t mean that the flu has suddenly mutated into a supervirus, Adalja says. “The flu is the same. This is not some new property that the flu has acquired,” he says.

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