Mechanistic insights into the effect of humidity on airborne influenza virus survival, transmission and incidence

J R Soc Interface. 2019 Jan 31;16(150):20180298. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2018.0298.


Influenza incidence and seasonality, along with virus survival and transmission, appear to depend at least partly on humidity, and recent studies have suggested that absolute humidity (AH) is more important than relative humidity (RH) in modulating observed patterns. In this perspective article, we re-evaluate studies of influenza virus survival in aerosols, transmission in animal models and influenza incidence to show that the combination of temperature and RH is equally valid as AH as a predictor. Collinearity must be considered, as higher levels of AH are only possible at higher temperatures, where it is well established that virus decay is more rapid. In studies of incidence that employ meteorological data, outdoor AH may be serving as a proxy for indoor RH in temperate regions during the wintertime heating season. Finally, we present a mechanistic explanation based on droplet evaporation and its impact on droplet physics and chemistry for why RH is more likely than AH to modulate virus survival and transmission.

Keywords: aerosol; environment; flu; humidity; temperature; transmission.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Humidity
  • Incidence
  • Influenza A virus*
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology*
  • Influenza, Human / transmission*
  • Microbial Viability*
  • Models, Biological*