Do nurses and doctors get ill more often?

07 February 2017

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Question

Cody - I'm an emergency room nurse and I've always wondered do medical care professionals get ill more or less often because of their constant exposure to pathogens?  In other words, does our constant exposure to pathogens increase our immune responses leading to a decrease in illness prevalence?

Answer

Chris S - A quick strawpoll of what we think here of our panel. Chris, what do you think? Obviously you don’t catch too many things from your patients hopefully because they're animals. But you can catch some things from animals but what about human bugs?

Chris B - I don’t know but i visited my GP the other day. I felt terrible, I had a really horrible sinusitis, I had mucus coming out almost every place. And I went up to my GP and he immediately put out his hand and I’d already told myself I’m not going to shake his hand. But the stupid British politeness in me made me stick my hand out. I shook his hand then he said “how are you feeling?” And I said “terrible. I’ve got mucus coming out of it’s horrible.” And he was like “that’s nice” and then immediately got the hand gel out and disinfected his hands.

I would have thought it would be very easy for healthcare professionals to pick up bugs.

Chris S - And do you know what’s really sad? Is that that hand gel is great for some bugs like bacteria, but there are lots of microbes, including rhinoviruses that cause nasty colds and enter our viruses that cause nasty, fluey colds, they are totally immune to the alcoholic hand gel. So what we end up with a nice pure culture of these bugs on your skin which you then touch your mouth, touch your eyes and they end up in you and you get infected.

Chris B - Yeah. I’m worried about my GP. I might just go and just see how he is.

Chris S - Apologise. A bottle of wine might be good there Chris.

I think the answer is, to answer Cody’s question: yes, people are being exposed more often. We know that people who work in healthcare settings do catch things like the flu more often because we’ve got really data comparing people who have a flu vaccine with people who don’t have the vaccine. And if you look at patients who are exposed to those care workers, the patients have a much better outcome because the catch flu less often. So this shows that there is a trade between what the people come into the hospital with, what the health care professionals then pick up, and what they then pass on to patients so this is actually a two-way street.

The other half of this question is really if I’m being exposed a lot do I develop this sort of superhuman immune system so I’m actually capable of fending of everything? Well the answer is you’ve still got to catch the thing in the first place because your immune system is an immune system because it adapts to what it’s seen before and stops you catching it again. So you’ve still got to catch stuff in the first place, you’ve still got ill at least once for each of these bus in the first place. There are hundreds of different cold and flu viruses out there so you’re going to get ill hundreds of times anyway.

So yes, a) you might develop quite a potent immune response but b) these bugs are very common, they're also mutating and changing the way they look all the time, and the number of exposures is incredibly high. So the likelihood is that medical professionals, and teachers probably too pick a lot more stuff a lot more of the time, and they probably do get infected quite often. And that rally is an occupational hazard isn’t it. Sorry… I think I’m one of them.

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