The Hygiene Revolution

Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor working in Vienna General Hospital and is known as the father of hand hygiene.

In 1846, he noticed that the women giving birth in the doctor-run maternity ward, were much more likely to develop a fever and die compared to the women giving birth in the adjacent midwife-run maternity ward. He decided to investigate, seeking differences between the two wards. He noticed that doctors often visited the maternity ward directly after performing an autopsy.

Based on this observation, he developed a theory that those performing autopsies got ‘cadaverous particles’ on their hands, which they then carried from the autopsy room into the maternity ward. Midwives however, did not conduct surgery or autopsies, so they were not exposed to these particles.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1813-1865)

As a result, Semmelweis imposed a new rule mandating handwashing with chlorine for doctors at the Hospital. The rates of death in his maternity ward fell dramatically, from 30 % to just 1.3 %. This was the first proof that cleansing hands could prevent infection.

However, his discovery was not popular with everyone: some doctors were disgruntled that Semmelweis was implying that they were to blame for the deaths. And they stopped washing their hands, arguing in support of the prevailing notion at that time, that water was the potential cause of disease. Semmelweis tried to persuade other doctors in European hospitals of the benefits of handwashing but to little avail.

Florence Nightingale

A few years later in Scutari, Italy, the Crimean War brought about a new handwashing champion, Florence Nightingale.

At a time when most people believed that infections were caused by foul odours called 'miasmas', Florence Nightingale implemented handwashing and other hygiene practices in the war hospital in which she worked. While the target of these practices was to fight the miasmas, Nightingale's handwashing practices achieved a reduction in infections.

Sadly, the hand hygiene practices promoted by Semmelweis and Nightingale were not widely adopted. In general, handwashing promotion stood still for over a century.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

It was not until the 1980s, when a string of foodborne outbreaks and healthcare-associated infections led the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention to identify hand hygiene as an important way to prevent the spread of infection. In doing so, they heralded the first nationally endorsed hand hygiene guidelines, and many more have followed.

Antiseptics & Disinfectants

What is the difference between an antiseptic and a disinfectant?

Antiseptics and disinfectants both kill microorganisms and many people use the terms interchangeably. Adding to the confusion, antiseptics are sometimes called skin disinfectants.

But there is a big difference between antiseptics and disinfectants. An antiseptic is applied to the body, while disinfectants are applied to nonliving surfaces, such as countertops and handrails. In a surgical setting for example, a doctor will apply an antiseptic to the surgical site on a person's body and use a disinfectant to sterilize the operating table.

Both antiseptics and disinfectants contain chemical agents that are sometimes called biocides. Hydrogen peroxide is an example. However, antiseptics usually contain lower concentrations of biocides than disinfectants do.

Antiseptics vs Disinfectants infographic

Antiseptics vs Disinfectants infographic

How are antiseptics used?

Antiseptics have a variety of uses both in and out of medical settings. In both settings, they’re applied to either the skin or mucous membranes. Specific antiseptic uses include:

  • Hand washing: Medical professionals use antiseptics for hand scrubs and rubs in hospitals.
  • Disinfecting mucous membranes: Antiseptics can be applied to the urethra, bladder, or vagina to clean the area before inserting a catheter. They can also help to treat an infection in these areas.
  • Cleaning skin before an operation: Antiseptics are applied to the skin before any kind of surgery to protect against any harmful microorganisms that might be on the skin.
  • Treating skin infections: You can buy OTC antiseptics to reduce the risk of infection in minor cuts, burns, and wounds. Examples include hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol.
  • Treating throat and mouth infections: Some throat lozenges contain antiseptics to help with sore throats due to a bacterial infection. You can purchase these on Amazon.