5 Airborne Diseases: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention And Treatment

Persistent cough or rashes on the skin can be signs of airborne diseases like flu, measles or chickenpox. We explain the causes, symptoms, prevention and treatment of five common airborne diseases.

By Ashwin Dewan  • 13 min read

5 Airborne Diseases: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention And Treatment
Child with flu symptoms

Chickenpox, mumps, measles and whooping cough! Diseases that sound alarming, right? And they are, if not prevented or treated right. In fact, your child can easily contract these airborne diseases and it can be extremely distressing for her. However, you need not worry, as this article provides a close look into a few of these airborne diseases, their causes, symptoms, complications, prevention, treatment and more. Knowing about the disease will help you calm down and seek proper treatment in time.

So, what is an airborne disease?

As the name implies, an airborne disease is spread through tiny pathogens in the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These pathogens can be viruses, bacteria or other microorganisms that cause the disease.

Your child can get the infection when he breathes in the infected air or comes into contact with a surface that contains these pathogens. Once the pathogens enter his body, they multiply and spread aggressively until he falls sick.

The extent of the spread of airborne diseases depends primarily on three factors:

  1. The number of pathogens present in the air
  2. The strength of the pathogen that has infected your child
  3. Your child’s resistance to the pathogen

As a parent, it can be challenging when it comes to protecting your child from these airborne diseases that are easily transmitted via air. In fact, such transmission makes it that much more difficult to control and prevent the diseases.

However, being equipped with a thorough understanding of these airborne diseases and being aware of how to prevent them can help you protect your child from them.

Airborne diseases list

Here’s a list of five common airborne diseases:

1. Flu (influenza)

Causes of flu: The common flu, also known as influenza, is caused by the influenza virus. This virus attacks the respiratory system – the nose, throat and lungs. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the flu virus is released into the air. If your child breathes in this infected air or touches a contaminated surface or object, she contracts influenza.

Common symptoms of flu: Some common symptoms of flu include fever, muscle ache, headache, chills, dry and persistent cough, sore throat, fatigue and nasal congestion. These symptoms often go away within five days. However, affected children may still suffer from cough and experience weakness even after the symptoms recede.

Complications of flu: In most cases, the flu takes its course and resolves on its own with proper care. However, if your child does not receive medical care at the right time, influenza can cause complications that can range from bronchitis and severe ear infections, to heart problems.

Prevention of flu: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USA, an annual flu vaccine for children six months and older is recommended. Apart from this, a few precautionary measures can be followed, that include:

  • Avoiding touching used tissues
  • Not sharing spoons, straws or cups with infected persons
  • Avoiding contact with or being near infected persons
  • Washing hands with soap regularly

Treatment for flu: First and foremost, follow your doctor’s advice and give your child the prescribed medication. Also, let your child –

  • stay hydrated by drinking enough water and fluids like juice and soup, at regular intervals
  • get plenty of rest
  • wear warm clothes (Note: Your child might feel cold one minute and hot the next. Keep appropriate clothes handy.)

2. Chickenpox (varicella)

Causes of chickenpox: This airborne disease manifests in the form of itchy, red blisters all over the body. Highly contagious, chickenpox is caused by the varicella virus and mainly affects children. It transmits easily from one infected child to another. It is not a serious airborne disease, but complications can arise in some cases.

Symptoms of chickenpox: Common symptoms of chickenpox include characteristic rashes across your child’s body, fever, muscle ache, loss of appetite and nausea. Most children get chickenpox only once in their lifetime. However, if the virus gets reactivated at a later stage, it causes shingles, which is a painful skin condition in the elderly.

Complications of chickenpox: In some severe cases of chickenpox, the skin around the blisters becomes painful and breathing difficulties can arise causing much discomfort to children. Neurological complications are rare, but possible.

Prevention of chickenpox: The varicella vaccine can both prevent your child from contracting chickenpox as well as reduce its severity. Also, avoid your child being in contact with people who are infected with the chickenpox virus as it is highly contagious.

Treatment for chickenpox: It is important to note that there is no cure for chickenpox. Follow your doctor’s advice. He may prescribe medication or suggest ways to soothe the itchiness and manage the discomfort. He may also suggest measures to provide relief from other symptoms. Further, your child may drink plenty of fluids (preferably water) and get plenty of rest. Chickenpox goes away within a week or two, without treatment.

3. Measles (rubeola)

Causes of measles: Measles is another highly contagious disease caused by the rubeola virus. It is spread through coughing, sneezing and close contact with a child with measles infection.

Symptoms of measles: Common symptoms of measles include fever, cough, runny nose, sneezing, body ache, red eyes, discharge from the eyes, watery eyes and loss of appetite.

Complications of measles: In severe cases of measles, there can be diarrhoea, vomiting, eye infection, difficulty in breathing and ear infection. Serious neurological complications can occur but are rare.

Prevention of measles: Measles, once a common childhood disease, can now be easily prevented with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. Children who have not been vaccinated are at a high risk of getting measles.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), during the period, 2000 to 2017, the measles vaccination prevented an estimated 21.1 million deaths, making it one of the ‘best buys’ in public health.

Treatment for measles: Measles usually goes away on its own after running its course. However, the doctor may recommend rest and fluid intake at regular intervals to prevent dehydration. Further, let your child –

  • stay in a dark or dimly lit room as measles tends to worsen with an increase in the intensity of light(sometimes, corneal scarring from measles can lead to blindness in children)
  • take a break from school and avoid close contact with others to prevent its spread
  • take vitamin A supplements (suggested by many doctors)

4. Whooping cough (pertussis)

Causes of whooping cough: A contagious and dreadful airborne disease, whooping cough is also referred to as pertussis as it is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is a respiratory tract infection that causes severe coughing spells, with a ‘whooping sound’ as the child tries to breathe in air.

Symptoms of whooping cough: The initial symptoms of whooping cough are like those of the common cold – runny nose, sneezing, mild cough and low-grade fever. However, after a week or two, the mild cough becomes more severe. In such cases, sometimes the child’s face can turn red briefly due to prolonged coughing.

Complications of whooping cough: Prolonged bouts of coughing may cause a child to vomit, struggle to breathe and inhale air with a whooping sound. Some extreme side effects of continuous coughing may include bruised ribs and abdominal hernia. Pneumonia is a rare complication. This infection affects all age groups but can cause serious complications in babies younger than six months.

Prevention of whooping cough: The disease is preventable if DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough), a childhood vaccine, is administered to your child.

Treatment for whooping cough: Cough syrup does not work in this case. If the condition is diagnosed early, antibiotics help treat it and prevent the infection from spreading. Further, let your child –

  • drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • get plenty of rest
  • use a vaporiser (under adult supervision) to soothe irritated lungs and breathing passages
  • stay away from smoke and sprays in the house (strong odours may irritate the airways)

5. Mumps

Causes of mumps: A condition in which a virus causes heavy swelling in the salivary glands (which are below the ears) is referred to as mumps. These glands are responsible for producing saliva in the human body. The mumps virus passes from one infected child to another through saliva, nasal secretions and close contact.

Symptoms of mumps: Common symptoms of mumps include body ache, pain while chewing food or swallowing, fatigue, swelling below the ears, headache, loss of appetite and fever.

Complications of mumps: Complications arising due to mumps are not common. However, in some rare cases, hearing loss may occur. Orchitis (inflammation of the testicles) and pancreatitis (inflammation in the pancreas) are rare. But consult a doctor immediately, if a male child infected with mumps complains of pain in the testicles. Also, seek medical help if your child complains of severe abdominal pain and loses sensorium (inability to think and perceive clearly).

Prevention of mumps: Vaccination is the best way to prevent mumps in children. Most infants and babies receive the MMR vaccine. This helps protect them from mumps later in life.

Treatment for mumps: Let your child get plenty of rest. Consult your doctor for pain relievers to ease symptoms.

You cannot prevent airborne diseases completely. However, certain simple measures like ensuring good ventilation to circulate the air, reducing contact with people with symptoms of illness, staying home when sick, following proper sanitary and hygienic practices, and avoiding crowded public areas, can help prevent their spread to a large extent.

Further, vaccinations protect your child from these dreadful diseases. For any queries you might have on vaccinations, discuss with your doctor about what to give your child. Ample rest and intake of lots of fluids are the best ways to treat less-serious cases of airborne diseases. Let your child stay safe and take care!

About the expert:

Reviewed by Dr Parin N Parmar on 12 January 2019

Dr Parin N Parmar is a consultant pediatric allergist/asthma specialist.

About the author:

Written by Ashwin Dewan on 8 January 2019; updated on 19 September 2019

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