Aerosolization of Mycobacterium tuberculosis by Tidal Breathing

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2022 Jul 15;206(2):206-216. doi: 10.1164/rccm.202110-2378OC.


Rationale: Interrupting tuberculosis (TB) transmission requires an improved understanding of how and when the causative organism, Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), is aerosolized. Although cough is commonly assumed to be the dominant source of Mtb aerosols, recent evidence of cough-independent Mtb release implies the contribution of alternative mechanisms. Objectives: To compare the aerosolization of Mtb bacilli and total particulate matter from patients with TB during three separate respiratory maneuvers: tidal breathing (TiBr), FVC, and cough. Methods: Bioaerosol sampling and Mtb enumeration by live-cell, fluorescence microscopy were combined with real-time measurement of CO2 concentration and total particle counts from 38 patients with GeneXpert-positive TB before treatment initiation. Measurements and Main Results: For all maneuvers, the proportions of particles detected across five size categories were similar, with most particles falling between 0.5-5 μm. Although total particle counts were 4.8-fold greater in cough samples than either TiBr or FVC, all three maneuvers returned similar rates of positivity for Mtb. No correlation was observed between total particle production and Mtb count. Instead, for total Mtb counts, the variability between individuals was greater than the variability between sampling maneuvers. Finally, when modelled using 24-hour breath and cough frequencies, our data indicate that TiBr might contribute more than 90% of the daily aerosolized Mtb among symptomatic patients with TB. Conclusions: Assuming the number of viable Mtb organisms released offers a reliable proxy of patient infectiousness, our observations imply that TiBr and interindividual variability in Mtb release might be significant contributors to TB transmission among active cases.

Keywords: TB transmission; bioaerosol; cough; forced vital capacity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aerosols
  • Cough / microbiology
  • Humans
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis*
  • Respiratory System
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Sputum / microbiology
  • Tuberculosis*


  • Aerosols