Inhale, Exhale: How Germs Spread from The Respiratory System

It’s easy to take breathing for granted.

But we should know exactly what the respiratory system is and how it can play a role in germs spreading in healthcare.

This part of the body can be separated into two parts: the upper airway, including the mouth, nose, throat, and windpipe, and the lower airway, including the lungs.

Germs in The Upper and Lower Airways

Many germs live in the upper airway.

Like with the skin and the digestive system, most of the germs that are commonly found in the nose, mouth, throat, and windpipe keep those parts of the body healthy.

But sometimes those germs can cause harm when they get into the lungs.

This can happen when they’re breathed in and get past the lungs’ natural defenses, or because something we do in healthcare, like intubation, lets them slide past those defenses into the lungs.

Usually, the defenses of the nose, mouth, and throat keep a lot of germs from getting to the lungs.

But when germs do get into the lungs, the lungs have a lot of defenses for getting germs out, like coughing.

However, when an infected person coughs, they can cause germs to spread to other people through respiratory droplets. Talking, breathing, singing, and sneezing can spread germs in the same way.

What’s a Respiratory Droplet?

All respiratory droplets are small, with some being too small to see, and others being big enough to see.respiratory coughing

Droplets travel different distances based on their size, air currents in the environment, and how strongly they come out. For example, if someone coughs, the droplets might travel farther.

Knowing that respiratory droplets are different sizes is helpful for understanding why we do some of the infection control actions we do in healthcare, such as wearing a mask and keeping a distance from others when you are sick.

What Can You Do to Promote Infection Control in Your Healthcare Setting?

It is important to protect yourself, patients, and colleagues from germs that can spread from the respiratory system.

Remember to properly clean your hands and wear appropriate PPE, such as face masks and N95 respirators.

Access more information about infection prevention and control in healthcare by visiting resources from CDC Project Firstline.

Project Firstline creates resources, including videos and shareable images, web buttons, posters, and print materials. They also have facilitator toolkits to help workers lead trainings even if they are not an infection control expert.

Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is working with the National Hispanic Medical Association to bring Project Firstline infection control educational content to healthcare workers, so they are equipped with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, their facilities, and their patients (Latinos and all communities) from infectious disease threats in healthcare settings.

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“Healthcare teams in hospitals, nursing homes, and other care settings are the front lines against the spread of infection,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio. “CDC’s Project Firstline is bolstering those efforts by developing evidence-based tools that can be delivered in a variety of ways to make infection control learning convenient and accessible for busy healthcare staff.”

Learn More about Project Firstline!

 Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America!, the National Hispanic Medical Association, and the CDC’s Project Firstline. To find resources training materials, and other tools to bolster knowledge and practice of infection control, visit Project Firstline and view Salud America!’s infection control content.



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