Abstract

The CDC recommends that healthcare settings provide influenza patients with facemasks as a means of reducing transmission to staff and other patients, and a recent report suggested that surgical masks can capture influenza virus in large droplet spray. However, there is minimal data on influenza virus aerosol shedding, the infectiousness of exhaled aerosols, and none on the impact of facemasks on viral aerosol shedding from patients with seasonal influenza.

We collected samples of exhaled particles (one with and one without a facemask) in two size fractions (“coarse”>5 µm, “fine”≤5 µm) from 37 volunteers within 5 days of seasonal influenza onset, measured viral copy number using quantitative RT-PCR, and tested the fine-particle fraction for culturable virus.

Fine particles contained 8.8 (95% CI 4.1 to 19) fold more viral copies than did coarse particles. Surgical masks reduced viral copy numbers in the fine fraction by 2.8 fold (95% CI 1.5 to 5.2) and in the coarse fraction by 25 fold (95% CI 3.5 to 180). Overall, masks produced a 3.4 fold (95% CI 1.8 to 6.3) reduction in viral aerosol shedding. Correlations between nasopharyngeal swab and the aerosol fraction copy numbers were weak (r = 0.17, coarse; r = 0.29, fine fraction). Copy numbers in exhaled breath declined rapidly with day after onset of illness. Two subjects with the highest copy numbers gave culture positive fine particle samples.

Surgical masks worn by patients reduce aerosols shedding of virus. The abundance of viral copies in fine particle aerosols and evidence for their infectiousness suggests an important role in seasonal influenza transmission. Monitoring exhaled virus aerosols will be important for validation of experimental transmission studies in humans.

Author Summary

The relative importance of direct and indirect contact, large droplet spray, and aerosols as modes of influenza transmission is not known but is important in devising effective interventions. Surgical facemasks worn by patients are recommended by the CDC as a means of reducing the spread of influenza in healthcare facilities. We sought to determine the total number of viral RNA copies present in exhaled breath and cough aerosols, whether the RNA copies in fine particle aerosols represent infectious virus, and whether surgical facemasks reduce the amount of virus shed into aerosols by people infected with seasonal influenza viruses. We found that total viral copies detected by molecular methods were 8.8 times more numerous in fine (≤5 µm) than in coarse (>5 µm) aerosol particles and that the fine particles from cases with the highest total number of viral RNA copies contained infectious virus. Surgical masks reduced the overall number of RNA copies by 3.4 fold. These results suggest an important role for aerosols in transmission of influenza virus and that surgical facemasks worn by infected persons are potentially an effective means of limiting the spread of influenza.

Ashashyou [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Citation: Milton DK, Fabian MP, Cowling BJ, Grantham ML, McDevitt JJ (2013) Influenza Virus Aerosols in Human Exhaled Breath: Particle Size, Culturability, and Effect of Surgical Masks. PLoS Pathog 9(3): e1003205. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1003205

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