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Original Articles

Toward Understanding the Risk of Secondary Airborne Infection: Emission of Respirable Pathogens

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Pages 143-154 | Published online: 17 Aug 2010


Certain respiratory tract infections are transmitted through air. Coughing and sneezing by an infected person can emit pathogen-containing particles with diameters less than 10 μ m that can reach the alveolar region. Based on our analysis of the sparse literature on respiratory aerosols, we estimated that emitted particles quickly decrease in diameter due to water loss to one-half the initial values, and that in one cough the volume in particles with initial diameters less than 20 μ m is 6 × 108 mL. The pathogen emission rate from a source case depends on the frequency of expiratory events, the respirable particle volume, and the pathogen concentration in respiratory fluid. Viable airborne pathogens are removed by exhaust ventilation, particle settling, die-off, and air disinfection methods; each removal mechanism can be assigned a first-order rate constant. The pathogen concentration in well-mixed room air depends on the emission rate, the size distribution of respirable particles carrying pathogens, and the removal rate constants. The particle settling rate and the alveolar deposition fraction depend on particle size. Given these inputs plus a susceptible person's breathing rate and exposure duration to room air, an expected alveolar dose μ is estimated. If the infectious dose is one organism, as appears to be true for tuberculosis, infection risk is estimated by the expression: R = 1 − exp(−μ). Using published tuberculosis data concerning cough frequency, bacilli concentration in respiratory fluid, and die-off rate, we illustrate the model via a plausible scenario for a person visiting the room of a pulmonary tuberculosis case. We suggest that patients termed “superspreaders” or “dangerous disseminators” are those infrequently encountered persons with high values of cough and/or sneeze frequency, elevated pathogen concentration in respiratory fluid, and/or increased respirable aerosol volume per expiratory event such that their pathogen emission rate is much higher than average.


The authors thank Rachael Jones for conducting a literature search for pertinent articles. This work was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, via collaborative agreement S2148-22/22 with the Association of Schools of Public Health. The ideas expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the funding agency.

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