Why Nurses Always Wear Gloves

Too much knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing. A reader once wrote to me to ask why, if HIV isn't spread by casual contact, healthcare providers are told to always wear gloves when dealing with HIV-positive patients and prison guards are told to wear them when breaking up fist fights. He wondered if the general public was being misled about the true danger of HIV transmission. He then asked me to help him understand why professionals seemed to be getting different information than he was as a regular citizen. This is what I told him.

Nurse giving a hospital patient medicine via IV
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If skin is intact (there are no cuts, for example), there is no risk of HIV transmission from casual contact. That means, HIV can't be transmitted by activities such as shaking hands, hugging, and kissing on the cheek. Intact skin is an excellent barrier for HIV. HIV is transmitted only via potentially infected secretions such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk.

So why do nurses wear gloves? It's not just about HIV. Not even close. Nurses are not just told to wear gloves when dealing with HIV positive patients... they're told to wear them all the time. This is because nurses and other healthcare providers often come into contact with bodily fluids unexpectedly. It's impossible to say when they will and when they won't. Wearing gloves helps to reduce individuals' risk of exposure to bacteria or viruses that can be transmitted by touch. It also helps keep them from spreading such bugs from patient to patient, or from themselves to a patient. In addition, gloves are always changed between patients to help reduce the transmission of diseases from one patient to another. Nurses also wash their hands with soap or use alcohol-based sanitizing gels to protect themselves and protect patients. There are plenty of illnesses around a hospital that nurses don't want to get. It's easier for nurses to protect themselves if they use universal precautions.

As for prison guards, hand-to-hand combat can cause a lot of damage. Wearing gloves helps to reduce the risk of accidental exposure to infected blood. Blood is a fluid that's a known HIV risk and can also transmit other diseases. It is, after all, not just HIV that individuals are worrying about catching. Other viruses, such as hepatitis C or even influenza are easier to catch and harder to kill. Gloves make touching bodies that may be infectious or susceptible to infection safer for everyone. They also make your hands easier to clean.

Are Gloves Enough?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, gloves alone aren't the perfect solution to reducing risk of cross contamination in hospital and other settings. For gloves to be the most useful, they also have to be combined with hand hygiene. In other words, for nurses to keep themselves and their patients the safest they should wash their hands before putting on gloves and again after taking them off. The same thing is true for anyone else using gloves to reduce the spread of disease.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there is one big downside to asking healthcare providers, and presumably others, to wear gloves during potentially risky contacts. (Which are all contacts in a healthcare setting.) It makes them less likely to wash their hands. Gloves are still better than just being careful about who and what you touch. They're just not as good as they can be if you don't clean between.

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4 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.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV transmission. Updated August 9, 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Standard precautions for all patient care. Updated January 26, 2016.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C questions and answers for the public. Updated January 13, 2020.

  4. Picheansanthian W, Chotibang J. Glove utilization in the prevention of cross transmission: A systematic review. JBI Database System Rev Implement Rep. 2015;13(4):188-230. doi:10.11124/jbisrir-2015-1817