UV Light May Help Fight the Flu Without Harming Humans

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Indian sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik finishes a sculpture promoting swine flu awareness on the Narmada River in the Hoshangabad district some 75kms from Bhopal on February 27, 2014. Parts of India are experiencing an outbreak of swine flu. Strdel/AFP/Getty Images

It's incredibly easy to catch the flu from someone. But a special type of light may make it a bit more difficult in the near future.

Researchers from Columbia University found that when the flu virus is airborne, an ultraviolet C light is able to kill it, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Related: Here's How The Flu Attacks Your Body—And Why It's So Painful

Other types of UV lights have been used in the medical field for decades, in order to sterilize tools and other equipment, but they can lead to skin cancer or eye problems, study author David Brenner, a radiation biophysics professor at Columbia University, explained in a statement.

The far-UVC light has proved to be much safer than the conventional germicidal UV light. Although more research is needed, so far it's proved not to cause damage to people's skin or eyes, the authors wrote in their published paper. It may even be able to fight against viruses other than the flu.

"If our results are confirmed in other settings, it follows that the use of overhead low-level far-UVC light in public locations would be a safe and efficient method for limiting the transmission and spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases, such as influenza and tuberculosis," Brenner said in a statement.

Related: Most of the Children Killed by Flu This Season Were Not Vaccinated

The research team has hypothesized for years that the far-UVC could have the potential to kill microbes while keeping humans safe. In their most recent study, they released particles of the H1N1 virus strain—which causes the swine flu—into a lab chamber. They then applied very low doses of the light to the chamber. Their findings revealed that the light inactivated nearly all of the particles.

"We think that this type of overhead light could be efficacious for basically any public setting," Brenner told Time. "Think about doctor's waiting rooms, schools, airports and airplanes—any place where there's a likelihood for airborne viruses."

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the lamp is that it has the potential to fight off all strains of the flu, whereas flu vaccines only protect against some. The 2017-2018 flu vaccine in the U.S., for example, is only about 25 percent effective against the H3N2 strain, which is the most common strain this season.

Another appealing factor of the lights is that they're not outrageously expensive. Each lamp costs about $1,000, but if they prove to be successful, mass production could drive that price down.