Abstract Airborne transmission is a pathway of contagion that is still not sufficiently investigated despite the evidence in the scientific literature of the role it can play in the context of an epidemic. While the medical research area dedicates efforts to find cures and remedies to counteract the effects of a virus, the engineering area is involved in providing risk assessments in indoor environments by simulating the airborne transmission of the virus during an epidemic. To this end, virus air emission data are needed. Unfortunately, this information is usually available only after the outbreak, based on specific reverse engineering cases. In this work, a novel approach to estimate the viral load emitted by a contagious subject on the basis of the viral load in the mouth, the type of respiratory activity (e.g. breathing, speaking), respiratory physiological parameters (e.g. inhalation rate), and activity level (e.g. resting, standing, light exercise) is proposed. The estimates of the proposed approach are in good agreement with values of viral loads of well-known diseases from the literature.