Coughing plays an important role in influenza transmission; however, there is insufficient information regarding the viral load in cough because of the lack of convenient and reliable collection methods. We developed a portable airborne particlecollection system to measure the viral load; it is equipped with an air sampler to draw air and pass it through a gelatin membrane filter connected to a cone-shaped, megaphone-like device to guide the cough airflow to the membrane. The membrane was dissolved in a medium, and the viral load was measured using quantitative real-time reverse transcriptasepolymerase chain reaction and a plaque assay. The approximate viral recovery rate of this system was 10% in simulation experiments to collect and quantify the viral particles aerosolized by a nebulizer. Using this system, cough samples were collected from 56 influenza A patients. The total viral detection rate was 41% (23/56), and the viral loads varied significantly (from <10, less than the detection limit, to 2240 viral gene copies/cough). Viable viruses were detected from 3 samples with ≤18 plaque forming units per cough sample. The virus detection rates were similar among different groups of patients infected with different viral subtypes and during different influenza seasons. Among patients who did not receive antiviral treatment, viruses were detected in one of six cases in the vaccinated group and four of six cases in the unvaccinated group. We found cases with high viral titers in throat swabs or oral secretions but very low or undetectable in coughs and vice versa suggesting other possible anatomical sites where the viruses might be mixed into the cough. Our system is easy to operate, appropriate for bedside use, and is useful for comparing the viral load in cough samples from influenza patients under various conditions and settings. However, further large-scale studies are warranted to validate our results.
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