What is the Difference Between an Airborne Pathogen and a Bloodborne Pathogen?

August 25, 2020 | Dr. Mary Williams, RN, DC | Comments

Bloodborne and airborne pathogens can both pose significant risks in the workplace. However, they are very different threats with different requirements in terms of prevention and risk avoidance.

What are bloodborne and airborne pathogens?

Both bloodborne and airborne pathogens are infectious micro-organisms that cause various diseases.

Bloodborne pathogens are passed along through blood, saliva, and other bodily fluids, whereas airborne pathogens can be transmitted through the air—either falling to surfaces in droplets emitted when an infected person breathes or coughs, or hanging in the air in aerosolized form.

Both bloodborne and airborne pathogens can be either bacteria or viruses.

How bloodborne pathogens are transmitted

Bloodborne pathogens are transmitted through bodily fluid: blood, saliva, sweat, semen, vaginal secretions, and cerebrospinal fluid can all carry these pathogens.

You contract a bloodborne pathogen when you come into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluid. Some ways this might happen include:

  • Human bites
  • Needle-stick injuries
  • Touching infected cuts, abrasions, or sores
  • Sharing infected needles
  • Unprotected sex
  • Sharing a toothbrush or other personal grooming implements

Some types of bloodborne pathogens, such as Hepatitis B, can live a long time on a dried surface—so touching an infected surface could possibly transmit a bloodborne pathogen as well, although it’s fairly rare.

Types of bloodborne illnesses

There are many different diseases caused by bloodborne pathogens. A few of the more serious and common ones include:

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). This is the virus that causes AIDS. Left untreated, it causes the immune system to fail over time—you don’t typically die of the disease, but of infections, cancer, and other health issues that your immune system can no longer fend off. 

HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. You can also get it by other means, however, such as through contact with an infected person’s blood or breast milk, sharing needles with an infected person, or getting a needlestick injury in a healthcare setting.

Hepatitis B (HBV). This virus attacks the liver. Many people recover, but approximately one in ten cases becomes chronic and can lead to more serious complications such as liver failure and death.

You can contract this disease through unprotected sex, sharing needles, and sharing common grooming implements such as nail clippers, toothbrushes or razors with an infected person. It can also be passed from mother to child during birth. 

Hepatitis C (HCV): Like HBV, this virus attacks the liver, but it is considered more dangerous than HBV. A much higher rate—as many as 85%--contract a more serious form of the illness that can result in liver failure, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.

This disease can be passed on by using infected needles for tattoos or piercings; getting a needlestick injury; or sharing a needle with an infected person. You can also catch it through unprotected sex or sharing razors and other grooming implements, although that’s more rare.

Types of airborne pathogens

Airborne pathogens tend to be more contagious than bloodborne pathogens.  You have to come into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids to contract a bloodborne illness; with an airborne one, all you have to do is breathe contaminated air.

Some airborne pathogens are more infectious than others, however. Here’s an overview of some of the more common airborne illnesses.

COVID-19 (Coronavirus): This is a virus that causes respiratory illness. It is transmitted when an infected person breathes, talks, sneezes, or coughs.

Infected droplets can hang in the air briefly before dropping onto surfaces, where you can touch them and contract the disease.  The virus can also become aerosolized, hanging in the air for possibly several hours, where it can be inhaled.

Tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is an airborne illness caused by a bacteria called Myobacterium tuberculosis. It mostly affects the lungs, although it can also take root in the kidneys, brain, and spine.

You can catch the disease by breathing in air where an infected person has been breathing, coughing, or sneezing. It tends to spread quickly in environments where people are close to each other, such as family groups, workplaces, schools, and hospitals.

Influenza. Influenza, or “the flu,” is one of the more common airborne diseases. It’s caused by a virus, and its symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.

The flu virus is ejected when an infected person coughs, talks, sneezes, or breathes, and can transmit to others at a distance of up to six feet. You can also catch it by touching a surface where infected droplets have landed, and then touching your face.

Diphtheria. This respiratory disease is caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae, and prior to effective treatment, it was considered one of the more deadly airborne illnesses. In past times, it killed approximately 50% of people who contracted it; even today, it kills about one in ten.

When you catch diphtheria, a thick gray coating of dead cells forms at the back of your throat. This coating can eventually become thick enough to interfere with breathing. In earlier times, the disease was called the “strangling angel.”

Diphtheria can be spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, contaminating the air around them. It can also be contracted if you touch a surface where infected droplets have landed, then touch your eyes, mouth or nose.

Less commonly, it’s possible to contract diphtheria by touching infected skin lesions or clothes that have touched infected skin lesions on someone with the illness.

Learn more about airborne and bloodborne pathogens

Airborne and bloodborne pathogens can both be deadly, but there are preventive measures you can take to be safe in almost any environment.

Implement engineering controls in the workplace, wear PPE, and adopt behavioral protocols that will reduce spread, and hopefully you can reduce the risk of transmission at your workplace.

We offer comprehensive courses on airborne pathogens and bloodborne pathogens. Learn how to protect yourself from both, and the measures you should take to reduce risk in the workplace.


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