Medical workers and immunity

OK, this question has been bugging me for some time now. To be precise, ever since 8:30 this morning, while I was riding the tram to work. I’ve searched the archives, but came up with nothing.

The question concerns people in the medical field. Doctors, nurses, but for the sake of the argument, cleaning ladies and the like as well. All these people work in an environment where exposure to contageous diseases is inevitable - the extent depending on the intensity of patient contact.
[ul][li]What happens to these people? Do they get sick more often than us “normal people”?[/li][li]Do they develop stronger immune systems because of continuous exposure to, say, the flu?[/li]Does it depend on the disease at hand?[/ul]So, that’s three questions, really. I hope someone can help me put my mind at ease!

When my mother became a nurse, they updated her vaccinations for those which are vaccinatable - things like TB, Hep etc. That’s in the UK, I don’t know about elsewhere. I do know that she got rubella from a patient’s grandchild (which they didn’t vaccinate her against & she had it quite badly as she was an adult). She didn’t seem to have flu or colds anymore often or less often than before, which was fairly rarely anyway.

I don’t know if any studies have been done on this.

I’m halfway through my nursing training, and thus far, although my clinical experience is somewhat limited as compared to someone who’s been in the trade a while, I can comment on the first two of your points!

point 1) the short answer is no. possibly the reason being because of the answer to <point 2)> which is, I have found, to be yes.

From what I have found, working in that environment, can be likened to having a vaccine. Minute amounts of a the “bugs” we’ll call them for now, get into the system, and the body’s natural defences build memory cells to combat this later on when it enters the body again. Most nurses I know, don’t get sick much at all. Of course, this does not automatically preclude a nurse (or anyone else working in that environment for that matter) to NOT taking the usual universal precautions!

just my thoughts anyway…someone else will probably have a better explanation!!

I can only give my point of view, based on my experience working in military hospitals.

When I got to my first duty station and actually started working in the hospital (ICU), I was sick ALL THE FREAKIN’ time. The nurses said, “don’t worry; you’ll get over it soon. You’re just getting your immunities built up.” After about a year, I moved to a family practice clinic. Even though we saw all sorts of sick kids and families, I never really got sick anymore after that initial “hazing” period of illness.

Even in that first year, mostly what I dealt with was bad headcolds, eternal sniffles and coughs. Nothing serious that required antibiotics or anything stronger than over the counter medications.

I’m sure someone with more experience in medicine can give you more details or (gasp!) actual science, but that’s my experience.

almost forgot to mention…as already mentioned by fierra, so I just noticed…that most facilities will provide vaccinations for larger, more severe viruses eg: hep B etc…for their staff. In australia, most vaccines from a child up until about 17 years, are provided free of charge by the federal Government through schools and local councils too! not tat it has anything to do with the OP, just a thought! :wally

don’t really know if any studies have been done on this or not…would be interesting to know…might have to go for a bit of a search!

What BunnyGirl said was what I expected - although it’s interesting to see that more-than-usual vaccinations are applied as well. Does the intensity of patient contact and/or the department you work in (if you’re treating burn victims, you’re less likely to catch Hep B, I suppose), influence the amount of vaccinations you receive, or is it a standard package that all nurses and doctors get? What about “peripheral” personel like maintenance workers and such?

I work as an RN in a busy ICU. When I first became a nurse, I did catch a lot of colds but now I rarely do. I’ve been vaccinated for Hep b, and take a routine flu shot every year.

Interestingly, when I switched hospitals to different city than where I live, I was sick for the first 2 months with bronchitis and flu-like symptoms.

My WAG would be that repeated exposure does build up immunity against a lot of viral-type diseases but I also note that many nurses, myself included, have an increased incidence of allergy exaceration.

Myself, I find my allergies (asthma,sinus congestion) are triggered more by environmental exposure to dust, cleaning agents, certain types of gloves–more to the powder than the latex.

I haven’t done any research as to the concentration of Hep B in serum, but since the virus is passed on in blood and body fluids and burn patients have large areas of injury, I would think a person would be more prone to exposure to Hepatitis while working with burn patients.

I think a lot of a person’s immunity depends on their own health practices, and nurses and health care personnel alike follow routine blood and body fluid precautions, good handwashing and personal protective equipment such as gloves, gowns etc.

Did you know that Hepatitis is either 1,000 or 10,000 times more contagious than HIV? A health care worker stands a much greater risk of contracting hepatitis through work related exposure than AIDS.

It seems reasonable to think they’d have better immune systems than the rest of us. I think of the first vaccination from smallpox (i think it was), where the milkmaids would never get smallpox due to always being exposed to cowpox.

After 20 years in the clinics, I get fewer respiratory infections than I used to. I think I’ve just gotten more antibodies to a wider variety of viral (and other) antigens. But it took time, and it’s still no substitute for cleanliness. my mantra is WASH HANDS WASH HANDS WASH HANDS. I think that’s made a big difference. Of course my hands are red and chapped, but my head is clear1

Qadgop, MD

I am always amazed that I don’t catch more nasty stuff. After all, on a daily basis, I am exposed to people with myriad infections. But, like Qadgop says, I assume I have developed a wide range of antibodies and the like.

I believe that health care workers may actually be at higher risk than the general population for certain bacterial infections, as opposed to viruses. I am referring to the acquisition and carriage of antibiotic resistant bugs like methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE). These bugs don’t cause illness in the carrier (usually) but, if transmitted to a compromised host, may cause trouble there.

Health care workers may also carry a nasty diarrhea bug called clostridium difficile. This usually causes illness in people only after they’ve received certain antibiotics, i.e. the antibiotics clear out the bacteria that normally compete with C. Difficile and allow the latter free reign.

This is the first time I’ve dared leave my bed today. I am at home resting, puking, resting, puking… It seems that my repertoire of antibodies did not extend to protect against the latest gastro’ bug!

I am not a health professional, but I worked in child day care for years. On first job, on a Navy base, I was mildly sick for several weeks. Was told everybody got it and it would work it’s way through. By the time I had my own day care, I seldom got sick. In four years, I never had a sick day.

I work in a hospital lab and while I don’t come into contact with patients usually I do handle their infectious material daily. Interestingly I was sick my first year here with the most awful gastro-whatever-the-hell-it-was I’ve ever had but I’ve only had the occasional cold since then. I’ve had the hepatitis B vaccine (which is offered free to all employees having any patient contact) and usually get a flu shot every year. I’ve always supposed that I’ve developed some sort of immunity while working here. There do seem to be some people I work with though who get sick regularly so I don’t know for sure.

Oh, incidentally, Clostridium difficile, like most other Clostridia, can be commonly found in the environment. It’s often seen in soil, water, and the g.i. tracts of animals although it’s not as frequently found in human adults.

Again; personal anecdote here.

I have done rape crisis counselling for almost 8 years in a busy inner-city hospital. I have had one cold (or ANY other kind of “bug”) in almost 20 years. I got that one cold within 8 weeks of getting the only flu shot I’ve ever had; offered free to people working at Denver Health (The Knife and Gun Club.)

Either I have the immune system of an ox, or the shot messed me up, or both. Though I don’t come into the close contact daily professionals do, I certainly am not peripheral. My SO is an MD, and rarely gets sick either. I would guess one builds immunity, but it’s probably more to do with one’s immune system than external factors.

And I work as a respiratory therapist. My personal experience is that I can treat adult respiratory infections all day long, but let me encounter a little one (pediatric patient) and I get sick as a dog the next day. Go figure.
The only thing that I can attribute it to is that I see more adults than kids, so my cells never get the chance to build up that immununity. What do the rest of you health pros think about my theory?


I work in a hospital in a non-patient care capacity. I rarely get sick at all. This is true of most of the people I work around also. Our office is located in the emergency department so there are always snotty, drooling people coming in and out, touching everything but it never seems to really affect us.

All employees are given TB tests and yearly, we have the option of free flu shots and full blood work/lab analysis. New employees are also given tetnus boosters if needed. All patient care providers must receive Hep B vaccinations but they are optional for those not in patient care positions.

I have always just assumed that my body had developed antibodies against most of the crud that comes through here. Interestingly, I have noticed that the individuals in my office who are the most neurotic about sanitizing and washing their hands and work surfaces are the ones who are sick most often.




From my personal experience sleep makes more difference than anything else. I rarely get sick when I can rest for 7-8 hours a night. If a few weeks come along that I only sleep 5-6 hours a night, I’ll almost guarantee that I’ll get sick sometime in the week or so there after, usually after a shift running rescue.

Medical people do get sick less often from minor ailments – I know it has been shown pediatricians get sick less often the the normal despite being exposed to put-near everything. I don’t know if this has been shown to be do to a “stronger” immune syustem, but presumably one would have a wider range of antibodies. It absolutely depends on the disease, though. The rate of HIV, hepatitis, VRE and methcillin-resistant Staph aureus could well be higher. Some docs I know would have to be pretty much dead before they wouldn’t work, and medical schools don’t encourage people to take sick days.

What immunizations you need depends on where you work. O elective in India, I took immunizations for encephalitis, Hep A, yellow fever and malaria. Here, Hep B, DPTP, flu shot, MMR, regular TB tests. Had the chicken pox already, though.