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What we never knew about the flu virus

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
New findings show flu can spread up to 6 feet by large droplets in the air

New findings show the influenza virus travels further than previously known in the hospital and during routine care. Now researchers have discovered small particles of the virus can travel up to 6 feet, potentially infecting health care workers. The implications are that currently used infection control measures may be ineffective.

The goal of protection in health care facilities is to avoid large particles of the virus from respiratory droplets that can be spread during certain aerosol treatments, sneezing and coughing.

Precautions that are in place during aerosol procedures include wearing fitted respirators. Hand washing and unfitted masks are used to protect health care workers from influenza during routine bedside care.

For the study, Werner E. Bischoff, MD, PhD, and colleagues from the Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina screened 94 patients for flu-like symptoms during the 2010-2011 influenza seasons to find out if the virus could also be found in the air within 1 foot, 3 feet, and 6 feet of patients.

Ninety four patients were enrolled in the study and 61 tested positive for flu. Twenty-fix of the 61 patients emitted flu into the air. Five of those who were sicker and had more of the virus on nasal and throat samplings released 32 times more of the virus than the other patients.

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The researchers tested areas where no aerosol treatments were used that include bronchoscopy, nebulizer treatments that induce sputum production, inserting breathing tubes or CPR. The investigation included a tally of the number of patient sneezes and coughs during the sampling period.

The results found small particles of the flu virus up to 6 feet from the patients’ heads that can happen during routine care.

For now, the best way to stay protected is by getting the flu vaccine, said William Schaffner, professor of medicine and chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., who was not involved in the study.

The finding suggests a closer look is needed at how influenza could be spread in the hospital that can impact the safety of health care workers. This year's flu season is especially severe.

What we didn't know about flu is that it can be spread by small droplets up to six feet, especially by the sickest of patients. Wearing a non-fitted mask during routine patient care may not be enough to protect health care workers or even their visitors who sometimes provide comfort measures at the bedside.

The Journal of Infectious Diseases
January 30, 2013

Image credit: CDC Public Health Images Library