Why Nurses Always Wear Gloves

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Disposable medical gloves made of latex, nitrile, or vinyl are standard protective gear for nurses and other healthcare providers to prevent the transmission of infection to and from patients.

Hospitals in the United States adhere to strict infection control practices, called standard precautions, which typically involve gloves whenever specific medical or sanitation procedures are performed. Gloves are not worn all the time but are considered essential for tasks with a risk of exposure to bodily fluids, such as blood.

This article looks at the purpose of medical gloves, including when they are worn, when they are changed, and when they may not be needed.

Nurse giving a hospital patient medicine via IV
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Purpose of Medical Gloves

Medical gloves are a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) used to protect healthcare providers and patients from infection. The gloves are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Class I reserved medical devices along with items like bandages, handheld surgical instruments, and non-electric wheelchairs.

The gloves must meet strict FDA performance standards, including leak resistance, tear resistance, and biocompatibility (meaning that they don't harm the wearer or patient's tissues).

Guidelines for Medical Glove Use

Medical gloves are used when touching someone else’s bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva, sputum, vomit, urine, or feces. They are also worn when touching potentially contaminated items or handling hazardous drugs (like certain chemotherapy drugs),

When Medical Gloves Are Worn

Medical gloves are used as part of a preventive practice known as standard precautions.

Previously known as universal precautions, standard precautions were first introduced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1985 during the height of the AIDS crisis when fears about HIV were high, and every hospitalized patient was treated as if they were infected.

The critical facet of standard precautions is the avoidance of bodily fluids using nonporous articles such as medical gloves, goggles, and face shields. Also involved are good hygiene practices, such as proper hand-washing and the correct handling of hypodermic needles, scalpels, and other sharps.

Certain principles govern the use of medical gloves in hospitals, namely:

  • Gloves should be worn every time a healthcare worker touches blood, bodily fluids, bodily tissues, mucous membranes, or broken skin.
  • Gloves should be worn even if a patient seems healthy and shows no signs of infection.
  • The proper glove size should be used to avoid slippage (if the glove is too large) or breakage (if the glove is too small).

Moreover, the right type of glove needs to be chosen for the specific task. This includes non-sterile gloves used for low-risk procedures like physical exams and sterile gloves used for surgery and other procedures in which the risk of exposure to bodily fluids is high.

There are also special gloves for handling hazardous or contaminated items. When handling hazardous drugs, like chemotherapy drugs, nurses will often wear two sets of gloves for added protection.

When Gloves Are Not Used

Medical gloves are not used for every task a nurse performs. Generally speaking, if there is no risk of contact with blood, bodily fluids, bodily tissues, mucous membranes, or broken skin, medical gloves are not needed.

In some cases, the inappropriate use of medical gloves can end up increasing the risk of disease transmission, especially if they are put on too early or too late.

If gloves are worn too early or for too long, there is a risk of cross-contamination (meaning the transfer of a bacteria or other infectious organism from one surface to the next). An example is the spread of methicillin-resistance Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), common in hospitals.

If gloves are put on too late, disease-causing organisms like MRSA can get on a healthcare worker's hand and be spread after the gloves are removed.

As such, rather than putting on gloves whether they are needed or not, nurses and other healthcare workers are advised to follow standard practices—putting them on when needed to perform a task, and taking them off and disposing of them when the task is completed.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nurses and other hospital staff should only wear gloves "to complete a specific task for a specific individual."

What to Do If a Nurse Doesn't Wear Gloves

Most patients understand that gloves are intended to safeguard against infection. Even when gloves are not absolutely necessary, some healthcare providers will wear them to provide their patients with a sense of security and safety.

On the other hand, wearing gloves is considered standard practice for certain procedures, like drawing blood, and performing them without gloves would make most people uncomfortable.

As such, if a nurse, medical technician, or other healthcare worker is not wearing gloves and it makes you uneasy, ask them why and request that they put on a pair if you are not satisfied with their response.

The same applies to hand-washing. Wearing gloves will only go so far in preventing disease transmission if the hands underneath are not clean.

Although nurses do not need gloves to use items like cell phones, tablets, or touchscreen devices, regular hand-washing—and the routine sanitizing of high-touch things like digital monitors—remains central to avoiding infection.

However, it is essential to note that a person's perception of risk may not always reflect the actual risk. For instance, changing unsoiled bed linen without gloves poses little threat of disease transmission, although it can still make certain people uncomfortable.

Other examples include helping patients change their clothes, assisting a patient onto a toilet, feeding a patient or taking their blood pressure, or changing an intravenous (IV) line. For these tasks, gloves are generally not necessary.

Summary

Medical gloves are essential to the avoidance of infection in hospitals. They are used whenever there is a risk of exposure to bodily fluids, including blood, urine, and feces.

There are sterile gloves used for procedures like surgery and non-sterile gloves used for low-risk procedures like a blood draw. There are also situations where gloves are unnecessary, such as simply touching a patient or helping them walk.

When needed, medical gloves are worn to complete a specific task in a specific individual. Once completed, the gloves should be removed and disposed of, and the wearer's hands should be thoroughly washed.

A Word From Verywell

The avoidance of infection in hospitals is a two-way street. If you have been hospitalized, you can do your part by washing your hands regularly, not going barefoot, and wearing a face mask in a crowded ward or shared room.

Before admission, you should also check with your healthcare provider to ensure you are updated with your vaccination, including the COVID vaccine.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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