Evaluation of droplet dispersion during non-invasive ventilation, oxygen therapy, nebuliser treatment and chest physiotherapy in clinical practice: implications for management of pandemic influenza and other airborne infections

Health Technol Assess. 2010 Oct;14(46):131-172. doi: 10.3310/hta14460-02.


Background: Influenza viruses are thought to be spread by droplets, but the role of aerosol dissemination is unclear and has not been assessed by previous studies. Oxygen therapy, nebulised medication and ventilatory support are treatments used in clinical practice to treat influenzal infection are thought to generate droplets or aerosols.

Objectives: Evaluation of the characteristics of droplet/aerosol dispersion around delivery systems during non-invasive ventilation (NIV), oxygen therapy, nebuliser treatment and chest physiotherapy by measuring droplet size, geographical distribution of droplets, decay in droplets over time after the interventions were discontinued.

Methods: Three groups were studied: (1) normal controls, (2) subjects with coryzal symptoms and (3) adult patients with chronic lung disease who were admitted to hospital with an infective exacerbation. Each group received oxygen therapy, NIV using a vented mask system and a modified circuit with non-vented mask and exhalation filter, and nebulised saline. The patient group had a period of standardised chest physiotherapy treatment. Droplet counts in mean diameter size ranges from 0.3 to > 10 µm were measured with an counter placed adjacent to the face and at a 1-m distance from the subject/patient, at the height of the nose/mouth of an average health-care worker.

Results: NIV using a vented mask produced droplets in the large size range (> 10 µm) in patients (p = 0.042) and coryzal subjects (p = 0.044) compared with baseline values, but not in normal controls (p = 0.379), but this increase in large droplets was not seen using the NIV circuit modification. Chest physiotherapy produced droplets predominantly of > 10 µm (p = 0.003), which, as with NIV droplet count in the patients, had fallen significantly by 1 m. Oxygen therapy did not increase droplet count in any size range. Nebulised saline delivered droplets in the small- and medium-size aerosol/droplet range, but did not increase large-size droplet count.

Conclusions: NIV and chest physiotherapy are droplet (not aerosol)-generating procedures, producing droplets of > 10 µm in size. Due to their large mass, most fall out on to local surfaces within 1 m. The only device producing an aerosol was the nebuliser and the output profile is consistent with nebuliser characteristics rather than dissemination of large droplets from patients. These findings suggest that health-care workers providing NIV and chest physiotherapy, working within 1 m of an infected patient should have a higher level of respiratory protection, but that infection control measures designed to limit aerosol spread may have less relevance for these procedures. These results may have infection control implications for other airborne infections, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome and tuberculosis, as well as for pandemic influenza infection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aerosols*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Confidence Intervals
  • Disease Outbreaks / prevention & control*
  • Female
  • Global Health
  • Humans
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype*
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology
  • Influenza, Human / prevention & control*
  • Influenza, Human / therapy
  • Influenza, Human / transmission*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nebulizers and Vaporizers
  • Oxygen Inhalation Therapy / adverse effects
  • Oxygen Inhalation Therapy / methods
  • Physical Therapy Modalities / adverse effects
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive
  • Respiration, Artificial / adverse effects
  • Respiration, Artificial / methods
  • Risk
  • Risk Assessment
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus
  • Young Adult


  • Aerosols