Tuberculosis spreads via breath, not just coughs, study shows

Tiny aerosols released when breathing may play a larger role in spreading tuberculosis than coughing, which has been long thought the main route of transmission, The New York Times reports. 

While coughing is the main symptom of the disease, the Times cited research presented Oct. 19 during the 52nd Union World Conference on Lung Health that showed as much as 90 percent of TB bacteria may be carried in tiny aerosols that are released when an infected person exhales deeply. 

The new findings don't change the understanding that a cough can send more Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes TB infections, into the air than a single breath. 

If an infected person with TB breaths 22,000 times per day and coughs 500 times, however, coughing would account for just 7 percent of the total bacteria emitted by that person, Ryan Dinkele, a graduate student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who presented the findings at the conference, told the Times.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, also spreads through aerosols, and the new research suggests the same protective measures used to limit the spread of COVID-19 — such as wearing masks and gathering only in well-ventilated spaces — may also be an important way to reduce TB transmission. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted global progress in treating and preventing TB, with about 1.5 million TB deaths reported globally last year — the first increase since 2005, according to an Oct. 14 World Health Organization report

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