Health Care August 28th, 2020

What Florence Nightingale taught us about airborne infection

What Florence Nightingale taught us about airborne infection

This course will help light your way to knowing how to stay healthy and protect yourself from airborne diseases. You’ll learn how microbes, such as viruses, travel.

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Microbes you can’t see can travel in the air, enter your airways and make you sick. As you try to protect yourself from this threat, you may feel like you’re in a dark corridor.

In the 1800’s one trailblazing nurse and social reformer shined a light on this threat. Protecting yourself from airborne microbes doesn’t have to be hard if you follow her example.

This is Florence Nightingale, better known as The Lady with the Lamp. She was a British nurse who had a special talent for making invisible disease factors visible.


Florence travelled up and down the corridors of hospitals tirelessly, caring for her patients. She noticed that some patients healed, while others got worse.

Florence searched for the reason for this. As she documented her findings, she found the answer - a window!

Patients who were closer to fresh air from a window tended to improve. They often healed. But patients who were too far away from fresh air tended to get worse.


“The first object of the nurse must be to keep the air breathed by her patient as pure as the air outside. The window of a room, if opened, is all that is desirable to air it.” - Florence


Florence Nightingale died in 1910, a heroine of health. But her words were not forgotten and her words can help us stay safe today.

Keeping a room fresh (and covering coughs and sneezes!) is still a key to helping people stay healthy and safe from airborne disease.

Why is the air so important, you may ask? Why does fresh air matter? It is because of the concentration of microbes in the air...


Imagine a group of people in a room with four walls and no windows. They may be talking, laughing and even singing. But one person has bad breath.

Those who are closest to that person may not be able to avoid the smell. But someone far off in a corner may not have to worry.

But if the person with the bad breath continues to talk, laugh and sing, the whole room will be filled with that bad breath.


Back in Florence’s time, there was a Bad Air Theory that the culprit of airborne diseases was miasma, a mist believed to cause disease.

Today we know that miasma doesn’t exist (although bad breath does). Instead microbes in the air, such as bacteria and viruses, cause illness.

When we are infected, there are millions of bacteria and viruses in our nose, throat and lungs. Every time we breathe or talk, we are sending some of these microbes into the air.

When we laugh, shout or sing, we send even more microbes into the air. If we cough or sneeze, it’s like a tidal wave sent into the air.

These microbes are kept in liquid bubbles that range in size from the width of a hair to the size of a poppy seed. We call these droplets.

Larger droplets tend to fall quickly due to gravity. Smaller ones can travel farther, up to two metres (6 feet). But some droplets are so small that they can travel great distances.


If you breathe, cough or sing enough of these droplets into the air, they can fill a room, much like bad breath. And anyone who is in that room is at risk for exposure.

But if you can move the air out of that room with a window, fan or HVAC system, you can lower the concentration of microbes in the room, and lower the risk for exposure!

What is important is how often the air is replaced with new air, called exchanges. The more exchanges of air you have, the more dilute (less concentrated) the droplets will be.

So, how can we use Florence Nightingale’s advice to help us stay safe from airborne diseases?

Continue for 3 tips you can apply during the current pandemic!

1) Try to keep doors and windows open to ensure there is movement of air.

2) Make sure your ventilation system is working well and you can feel the air flowing. Put a High Efficiency Particulate Air filter in the air ducts if the air is being recycled.

If you don’t have an HVAC, fans can also help… and many come with filters that trap microbes and make the air completely safe.

3) You could meet up with people outside, where there is always circulation of air.

If you’re unsure of the air circulation in a space, you can always wear a mask. It will filter the air for you as you breathe in and out.

Don’t forget to physically distance yourself from others, to ensure that droplets from their airways end up on the ground and not in you!

Most important of all, if you are sick, STAY HOME. This is the best way to prevent infection.


Airborne infection is real, but by keeping the air fresh and clear, you can reduce the chances that you and others will get sick. Thanks to The Lady with the Lamp!

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