Health & Lifestyle

Flash of red light up the nose is being tested to stop post-op infections

  • The new approach is based on previous research and being trialled in the UK 

Shining a red light up a patient’s nose is being tested as a new way to prevent infections in surgical incisions.

The new approach, being trialled in a UK hospital, is based on previous research which shows this kind of light therapy can cause a reaction inside bacteria that kills them.

Our noses have all sorts of bacteria, viruses and fungi living inside them. While these are normally harmless, if they get into a surgical incision they can colonise and cause infection. For example, around a third of us carry the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus in our noses, which is one of the leading causes of surgical-site infections.

Quite how the bacteria get from the nose into the incision site isn’t fully understood, but surgical-site infections are common, affecting at least 5 per cent of people undergoing a procedure, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. These infections can increase the length of hospital stays: a patient with a surgical-site infection will, on average, spend seven to 11 more days in hospital, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

They can affect recovery, causing pain and other complications.

Shining a red light up a patient's nose is being tested as a new way to prevent infections in surgical incisions (Stock Image)

Shining a red light up a patient’s nose is being tested as a new way to prevent infections in surgical incisions (Stock Image) 

This is why patients’ noses are normally ‘decolonised’ before surgery, typically with an antibiotic cream called mupirocin. But as well as being time-consuming to apply, there are also concerns about antibiotic resistance.

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Now, UK doctors hope that using a device that emits red light into the nose will be a viable alternative. In a six-month trial, 500 patients at Pontefract Hospital in West Yorkshire are undergoing the treatment – a form of what is known as photodynamic therapy (PDT), using a Steriwave machine in a single five-minute session before they have hip or knee surgery.

First they will apply a light-sensitive gel to each nostril, using a swab. They then place a small, thin probe just inside each nostril; this lights up and when the light hits the gel, it causes an ‘oxidative burst’.

This is when oxygen is generated inside the bacterial cell. ‘This isn’t like the oxygen we breathe, but a toxic version which can damage the cell’s DNA and membranes,’ explains Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at Reading University.

Furthermore, the way light-based treatments damage multiple parts of the bacterial cell makes it harder for them to acquire resistance, adds Dr Andrew Edwards, a senior lecturer in molecular microbiology at Imperial College London (neither expert is involved in the trial). ‘It raises hopes that this approach could become routine.’

And because human cells in the nose ‘are very tough and shed continuously, any damage to them is inconsequential’, he adds.

The maker of the red-light device, Ondine Biomedical, claims it kills bacteria within five minutes, and clinical trials showed that it ‘eliminated or significantly decreased’ Staphylococcus aureus in 86 per cent of carriers.

Did you know? 

Multitasking with electronic devices could be bad for your brain. In a Sussex University study, MRI scans of people who used their mobiles and laptops while simultaneously watching TV showed they had less grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) than those who use just one device.

The ACC is responsible for emotional and cognitive functions, and the neuro-scientists who led the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, said while those who ‘engage in heavier media-multi-tasking … perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties’, the cause of the brain differences was not clear.

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