Graphics show how quickly germs can spread in a hospital

HospitalCorridor_blogNew research, backed by some pretty cool graphics, is showing just how quickly germs can spread within a healthcare setting—such as nursing homes and hospitals—and challenges the myth that infectious droplets released by patients’ coughing, sneezing, or breathing can be fully dealt with by the building’s ventilation system.

Marco-Felipe King, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Leeds in the U.K., created GIFs based on his findings and detail how hospital rooms can host germs that quickly spread around the room, where they can infect others. His research was conducted in multi-patient and single-patient hospital rooms and was published in the journal Indoor Air earlier this year.

As stated in a recent article, King and his colleagues used a test facility at the University of Leeds to make a replica of a hospital room and released bacteria to see where it went. What they found was that surfaces were contaminated meters away from the source instead of being removed by the room’s ventilation system. Where a patient with an infectious disease is, relative to the room’s air ventilation system also matters, and can impact the distribution of germs in the room.

King’s research also discovered that healthcare workers have fewer germs on their hands when they work with a patient in a single room versus when they work with several patients in one room. Essentially, walls help protect patients from the germs of other patients.

While the news and corresponding graphics are unsettling, board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said in the article that he is not shocked by the findings.

“A long-standing risk of going to the hospital is that you might acquire an infection while you’re there,” he said. “Everything can spread really easily in hospitals.”

Adalja said certain infections thrive in hospital environments, including C. difficile bacteria (it can cause fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain), norovirus (which causes acute stomach issues and vomiting), and MRSA (the drug-resistant bacteria that causes staph infections).

It’s not the fault of the hospitals, per se, Adalja added in the article.  Rather, he said it is just due to what happens within them. Visitors come in and out, and patients may have IV lines, catheters, or open wounds that leave them especially prone to infection. And, of course, the ventilation can move germs around.

However, Adalja said there are a few things people can do to lower their odds of getting an infection. The first is to visit your primary care physician whenever possible and avoid a hospital stay altogether.

“From an infectious disease and cost standpoint, you don’t want to be in the hospital if you can avoid it,” Adalja said.

When that’s not possible however, he recommends asking your caregivers if they’ve washed their hands, as well as any visitors. If you’re visiting someone in the hospital, be sure to wash your hands before and after your visit, since surfaces that you may touch can become contaminated as well.

Despite his findings, King stresses that hospitals are “safe places and provide excellent patient care.” Just maybe be mindful of where the vents are located, he said.

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Below: Simulation of a airflow in a four-bed hospital room, colored by temperature. The blue beds show where patients are, while the figure in the middle represents the doctor. Source:


Below: The prediction of hand contamination by bacteria of nurses from surface contacts after typical patient care for four patients in separate single rooms (left)  vs. four patients in a four-bed room (right). The graph at bottom shows the decreasing trend of contamination after dealing with the infectious patient in the single room (due to bacteria being removed from hand-washing), but the increasing trend of the same care in a four-bed room due to surface contamination. Source:









Below: This figure shows how infectious droplets released by a hospital patient in a four-bed room contaminates the surfaces of nearby patients. Source:


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