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Low humidity increases COVID risk; another reason to wear a mask

August 24, 2020
Dry air could prompt further disease spread
Professor Michael Ward says we could face increased risks of coronavirus community transmission when humidity is low or when the air is drier.
photo of the Sydney skyline with centrepoint tower,photo of the Sydney skyline with centrepoint tower
Drier air in Sydney linked to COVID-19 risk. Photo: Pixabay

A study in June focused on the Greater Sydney area during the early epidemic stage of COVID-19 found an association between lower humidity and an increase in community transmission.

Now a second study in August by the same team confirms the risk.

The study is published today in Transboundary and Emerging Diseases.

The research led by Professor Michael Ward, an epidemiologist in the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, and two researchers from our partner institution Fudan University School of Public Health in Shanghai, China, is the second peer-reviewed study of a relationship between weather conditions and COVID-19 in Australia.

“This second study adds to a growing body of evidence that humidity is a key factor in the spread of COVID-19,” Professor Ward said.

Dry air and COVID-19

Lower humidity can be defined as “drier air”. The study estimated that for a 1 percent decrease in relative humidity, COVID-19 cases might increase by 7-8 percent.

The estimate is about a 2-fold increase in COVID-19 notifications for a 10 percent drop in relative humidity.

“Dry air appears to favour the spread of COVID-19, meaning time and place become important,” Professor Ward said. “Accumulating evidence shows that climate is a factor in COVID-19 spread, raising the prospect of seasonal disease outbreaks.”

cartoon image of two men sneezing at each other, they are wearing masks,
Masks can help protect against the spread of aerosols. Image: Pixabay

Why humidity matters

Professor Ward said there are biological reasons why humidity matters in transmission of airborne viruses.

“When the humidity is lower, the air is drier and it makes the aerosols smaller,” he said, adding that aerosols are smaller than droplets. “When you sneeze and cough those smaller infectious aerosols can stay suspended in the air for longer. That increases the exposure for other people. When the air is humid and the aerosols are larger and heavier, they fall and hit surfaces quicker.

“This suggests the need for people to wear a mask, both to prevent infectious aerosols escaping into the air in the case of an infectious individual, and exposure to infectious aerosols in the case of an uninfected individual,” Professor Ward said.

Key findings

  • Additional evidence from the Sydney COVID-19 epidemic has confirmed cases to be associated with humidity
  • Reduced humidity was found in several different regions of Sydney to be consistently linked to increased cases
  • The same link was not found for other weather factors – rainfall, temperature or wind
  • Climatic conditions conducive to the spread of COVID-19 present a challenge to public health.

Further research

Further studies on humidity for the remainder of the year are needed to determine how the humidity relationship works and the extent to which it drives COVID-19 case notification rates.


Declaration: This research received no funding. Main photo: Shutterstock

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