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Airborne Bacteria: How Your Immune System Protects You from the Air You Breathe

Airborne bacteria are everywhere. Bacteria affects the quality of the air you breathe, even the air you’re breathing right now. A healthy immune system fights off many invaders before you are ever aware of the attack.

Airborne bacteria are capable of causing severe infection when inhaled, ingested or come into contact with your skin. Some of the bacteria in the air right now came from the people in the room with you, or even earlier in the day. Bacteria is disbursed into the air from their skin, hair, and noses. If you just laughed, that probably released bacteria too. We all spread bacteria wherever we go.

How Bacteria Are Introduced into the Air

An infected person could force contaminants into the air by sneezing, coughing, laughing or breathing. If you are enclosed on a bus or train, or even in a small room, you will be breathing in contaminated air. When the atmosphere is humid, there is less chance of breathing in contaminants, because the water molecules attach to the particles causing them to become too heavy to remain airborne.

When the atmosphere is dry, airborne bacteria remain airborne. Contaminants can infect dust particles, allowing them to regain their flight with the turn of a page. These infected dust particles can travel great distances once in the dry air.

Every day, we are bombarded with bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Some illnesses are spread easier than others. The most common airborne bacteria include:

  • Whooping cough
  • Diphtheria
  • Meningitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Pneumonia

Most of the population can avoid many of these bacterial infections through immunization, but not everyone is immune. Enabling these deadly diseases to continue infecting people and reproducing. Bacteria in the air put those who are not immunized or have weakened immune systems, at risk of infection. Tuberculosis, which infects the lungs, is one of the most virulent airborne bacteria in the world because of its easy access to the air. With just a small cough, the phages are airborne seeking a new host.

How the Immune System Fights Infection

When germs, either viral or bacterial, invade your body, they attack and multiply. This is called infection. The infection causes illness. The white blood cells (and other immune system cells) in the bloodstream begin to fight the infection. There are three components to the immune system response and three stages to eliminating invaders.

  • Macrophages that swallow and digest germs, dead cells, and dying cells. Macrophages leave behind the parts of the invading organism called antigens. The immune system identifies antigens as dangerous.
  • Antibodies are then produced by the B-lymphocytes. The newly produced antibodies then attack the antigens left by the macrophages.
  • T-lymphocytes another type of white blood cell attacks the cells in the body that have already been infected by the organism.

From the time the body encounters an infection, it can take several days for the immune system to fight it off. The immune system then remembers how to protect the body against that disease. The body keeps a few remaining T-lymphocytes, as memory cells that respond quickly if the same illness is encountered again.

How Your Respiratory System Fights Infection

Your respiratory system also protects from airborne bacteria. Only the smallest particles can reach deeply into your lungs, that’s because there are tiny hairs called cilia along the walls of your airways and the mucus that coats the airways. Together the tiny hairs and mucous trap unwanted particles, filtering the air you breathe.

There are cells that protect your respiratory tract called phagocytes. They destroy unwanted particles such as viruses and other sources of infection. When the threat of invasion is serious, your immune system responds by releasing more white blood cells, neutrophils.

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi lie waiting on every surface to be transferred to their next victim. There are ways to protect yourself, and others from infection.

  • Smother coughs and sneezes to help reduce how many bacteria can get airborne when you’re sick
  • Clean and sanitize surfaces with bacteria that have settled there
  • Wash hands frequently, so you can help reduce the bacteria transfer to each place you touch
  • Stay current with immunizations. This will help your body’s immune system learn about potential infiltrating subverters before they have a chance to cause a full immune response (fever, runny nose, etc.)
  • Avoid travel to highly infected areas to help reduce the likelihood of getting any easily spread illnesses.
  • Install air filtration systems to remove airborne contaminants. The best air filters have silver and other anti-microbial components to make sure that any bacteria captured are neutralized, rather than growing and spreading.

While many disease-causing contaminants begin as airborne invaders, even the airborne eventually land. Frequent hand washing is your best defense, as is keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth after touching potentially contaminated surfaces. If you are sick, do your coworkers or classmates a favor and stay home. Sometimes it is best not to share.

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