If this Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it has been the importance of hygiene in maintaining health and has made us establish habits such as hand washing that are highly effective in preventing infections.
Today we know that hygiene and health go hand in hand but that has not been the case throughout history. In this post, we will see the evolution of hygiene over the centuries and the importance of hygiene in the health field.
If we analyze the definition of hygiene, we can see the close relationship it has with health: On the one hand, hygiene is all the techniques that we apply for personal care and that have a positive impact on health, preventing diseases and infections. On the other hand, it is the part of medicine that tries to prolong life, preserving people’s health. Also, if we look for its etymology, the word hygiene comes from the Greek term “Higieya”, which was the Greek goddess of health. However, we can affirm that hygiene is essential to have a healthy life.
Evolution of hygiene throughout history
- The first civilizations in which we can observe good hygiene practices are the Egyptians and ancient Greece. The Egyptians took great care of everything related to hygiene and public health. The Greeks found that hygiene, diet, and correct habits contributed to maintaining an adequate level of health.
- But it was the Roman culture that gave a great boom to hygiene, with great engineering works that benefited public health, such as sewers, hot water baths, graves, etc. In addition, the houses incorporated a room with water for cleaning, and even the noble houses had a room with a bathtub.
- In the Middle Ages, the baths in private homes were reserved for the nobility and wealthy people. For the others, there were numerous public baths that were visited from time to time. Although they did not bathe daily, it must be said that they did clean themselves by washing their hands and face, and sometimes with a damp cloth in other areas. But, the public baths were frowned upon, especially by the Church, and, over the years, they were closed.
- In the Renaissance, the disease was not fought with hygiene. The use of perfumes and dry rubs replaced water, which was only used on the visible parts (hands and face). Parts of the body that remained covered did not need to be cleaned.
- In the 18th century, people washed little and did it dry, avoiding the use of water. It was believed that the water was unhealthy, especially hot so that people could go their entire lives without taking a bath. It was believed that staying soaked facilitated the entry of diseases, so they avoided bathing. When they bathed, until well into the 19th century, they did so with a kind of shirt or with their own underwear.
- An important milestone with hand hygiene in medicine occurred in 1847: the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis observed that mortality among women in labor attended by obstetricians was up to five times higher than in those attended by midwives. He related it to the fact that doctors and apprentices attended to women in childbirth after analyzing the corpses and their viscera in the autopsy room, for which he proposed to carefully wash their hands with a chlorinated substance, reducing deaths by 20%.
- But the doctors of the time did not see with good eyes that they were blamed for the deaths of these women, so their ideas were rejected. Semmelweis’ recommendations were only accepted after his death when Louis Pasteur confirmed the theory of germs as the cause of infections,
- Hygiene was instituted as a branch of medicine at the beginning of the 20th century in order to prevent diseases and preserve the physical and mental health of populations. Thanks to the conception of hygiene as a science, many diseases were prevented in different countries. Access to basic services such as electricity, gas, or electricity contributes to maintaining personal and urban hygiene.
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- Sanitary hygiene is all measures that are carried out in health centers to prevent infection and combat risks to the health of patients and professionals, such as personal hygiene of the patient, cleaning the external mucous membranes, the proper maintenance of utensils used in sanitary practices, professional hand washing, etc.
- Environmental hygiene in any space, and especially in the health field, contributes greatly to infection control. It has been estimated that more than 5% of the people who pass or enter a hospital have contracted an infection in the facilities, for this reason, it is considered that everything that surrounds the patient must be subjected to rigorous cleaning. This concept is very important in healthcare: We call nosocomial infection any infection that the patient acquires while in the healthcare center and that neither had it nor was incubating it before entering the healthcare center. Therefore, sanitary hygiene is especially important in avoiding this type of infection.
- Sanitary hygiene implies the coordination of personal hygiene and the cleaning and disinfection of hospital utensils, spaces, and environments. Thus, hygiene actions will be carried out at these three levels: patients, materials used, and environment.
- Hygiene of the hospitalized patient is carried out in order to preserve the skin and mucous membranes in good condition, in this way we get them to carry out their protective function correctly. The nursing team is in charge of maintaining the patient’s hygiene, dry or wet and monitoring the existence of wounds, and prevention of pressure ulcers during cleaning.
- Cleaning and disinfecting hospital equipment is essential to carry out tasks within a hospital or clinic. In a hospital they work a lot with single-use materials, such as gloves, gauze, … but there are also materials that are reused, such as surgical supplies, sheets, etc. In reused materials, the processes of disinfection and cleaning of hospital material and of sterilization are very important. These processes are carried out daily because the lack of hygiene can increase the possibility of infections in patients.
- The sterilization process destroys any existing life form, including spores. A good example of sterilization is that applied to surgical instruments by autoclaving. Disinfection consists of the destruction, elimination, or inhibition of all pathogenic microorganisms. However, with it, the microbial forms are not totally eliminated, since the spores do not disappear with this action. An example of disinfection is cleaning a toilet.
- We can define cleaning as the elimination of any material foreign to the product through a physicochemical procedure. In this process, soap and water or detergent are used and washing or brushing is carried out.
Regarding the hygiene of the environment, we must maintain a rigorous cleaning of the facilities, the purpose of which is to eliminate and remove from the inert surfaces the dirt that supports and nourishes the microorganisms, by mechanical and physical means.
Hand hygiene is one of the simplest and most cost-effective sanitary hygiene measures for the prevention of infections and to avoid the transmission of multi-resistant bacteria. In recent times, it has been assumed as a normal hygiene routine, reducing the transmission of infections. These are the basic steps for proper handwashing:
- Apply soap and rub your palms together
- Rub the palm of one hand against the back of the other, interlocking the fingers
- Rub hands with interlocked fingers
- Rubbing the backs of the fingers of one hand against the palm of the opposite hand
- Surround the thumbs with the palm and rub in a rotating motion
- Rub the fingertips against the palm, making a rotating motion
- Rub the wrists
- Rinse with plenty of water and dry with a single-use towel.
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