Tips to Avoid Hospital Infections

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated one in 25 people admitted to hospital will acquire an infection during their stay. That's a staggering statistic given the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains and ever-increasing rates of hospital-acquired sepsis.

Patient being wheeled on a gurney to the elevator
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

As much as infection control practices—referred to as standard precautions—are followed in all U.S. hospitals, compliance to the protocols can vary.

As a patient or visitor, you can help reduce the risk of infection by taking a few, simple precautionary steps.

How to Prevent Infection

Healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) are a growing concern in American hospitals as well as those around the world. Because hospitals are populated with ill people, they remain hotbeds of infections. While hospital staff will take every step to avoid the spread of infection, transmission can and does occur.

In an effort to stem the tide of HAIs, greater regulatory oversight has been implemented to improve standard precautions and other infection control measures in hospitals. According to the CDC, these improved measures have translated to a steep reduction in HAIs from 2008 to 2014, wherein:

There are things you can do to further ensure that you or a hospitalized loved one doesn't become the one-in-25 people to get an HAI.

Wash Your Hands

Washing hands with soap and water (or hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol) reduces the risk of infections. This should be before and after being in close contact with another person or after touching surfaces outside of your immediate "clean space." 

Handwashing with soap and water for around 20 seconds is one of the best ways to protect yourself and others from infection. You can use antibacterial soap, but regular soap and water work just fine.

Watch What You Touch

In addition to hand washing, you should also avoid touching your face. Doing so facilitates the transmission of germs to your mouth and nose from surfaces, from other people, or via the fecal-oral route.

If you have been hospitalized, you should also avoid walking barefoot in your room or the halls. Fungal and bacterial infections can readily be transmitted from the floor to your feet, some of which may be potentially serious.

Another concern is cellulitis, a severe skin complication in which a local bacterial infection spreads from the initial site of exposure (such as a break in the skin) to surrounding tissues. Cellulitis is a common cause of hospital admissions but can also be acquired while in hospital.

Avoid Respiratory Infection

In the age of COVID-19, everyone is aware of the importance of social distancing and face masks. In hospitals, where respiratory infections are common, the need to adhere to these guidelines to not only protects yourself but others around you.

To prevent the transmission of respiratory infections in hospital:

  • Wear a face mask, especially when around others or in a ward or shared room.
  • Stand at least three feet (and ideally six) from others.
  • Avoid touching surfaces.
  • If you have to cough or sneeze, do so into a tissue or the crook of your elbow.
  • Wash your hands vigorously after entering or leaving a room, or after coughing or sneezing.

Get Vaccinated

Hospitalized people often have weakened immune systems and are less able to fight common infections. For this reason, healthcare workers are mandated to be vaccinated against common hospital-borne infections. As someone either going into hospital or planning to visit someone in hospital, you should too.

This not only includes getting the annual flu shot but also the COVID-19 vaccine (as directed by your local health authority). If you or a loved one is scheduled to be hospitalized, these should be done at least two weeks in advance to achieve maximum protection.

Adults who haven't gotten their pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against, pneumococcal pneumonia, should also consider getting the Pneumovax vaccine if 65 or over or immunocompromised.

Even if you have been fully vaccinated, never visit someone in the hospital if you are ill. This not only includes respiratory illnesses but any illness involving fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, or unexplained rash.

How to Avoid Antibiotic Resistance

MRSA is one of the many antibiotic-resistance bacteria that a person can get while in hospital and one that has become harder and harder to control due to inappropriate use of antibiotics worldwide.

In addition to MRSA, there are antibiotic-resistant bacteria of growing concern to public health officials, including:

Although measures are taken at hospitals to avoid the spread of these drug-resistant infections, there are things you can do to avoid adding to the problem.

If you are undergoing surgery, you will almost invariably be given an antibiotic to prevent infection. To avoid resistance, you need to take the drug as prescribed for the entire course of treatment.

For an antibiotic to work, it needs to kill as many of the harmful bacteria as possible. If you stop treatment early because you feel better, there may still be bacteria able to replicate. If any of these bacteria are drug-resistant, they can grow in number and become less susceptible to antibiotics in the future.

Furthermore, resistant bacteria can be passed to other people, meaning that they will have "inherited" a drug-resistant strain. The more and more that this occurs, the deeper and more serious antibiotic resistance can become.

If you are prescribed antibiotics, take them a directed and never stop early. If you develop a rash or other allergy symptoms, call your doctor to assess whether the treatment should be stopped or changed.

How to Reduce Risk to Healthcare Workers

Hospital-acquired infections are a concern not only to patients but to hospital staff as well. Among the concerns, around 385,000 healthcare professionals are a risk of bloodborne infections due to needlestick injuries or other sharps injuries.

Although the risk of HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne infections is relatively low, transmission can occur. With a disease like HIV, healthcare workers potentially exposed to the virus will need to undergo a 28-day course of medications in an effort to avert infection.

Doctors and nursing staff follow standard protocols to avoid sharps injuries, including recapping needles and disposing of used needles in a sharps container.

You can further reduce the risk by following four simple rules.

  • Never get in a nurse's way while performing an injection. This includes holding a loved one's hand.
  • Avoid asking questions when an injection is being given.
  • Resist jerking or flinching when you are given an injection or the needle is being removed.
  • Never touch a sharps container. Keep your child well away from the box as well.

A Word From Verywell

Preparation is key to protecting yourself or a loved one from hospital-associated infections. If you are scheduled for a hospital procedure, establish rules for visitors so they understand what they can and cannot do before they arrive. This includes gifts they should not bring.

Though the hospital will likely have face masks, slippers, and hand sanitizers for you, call in advance to see if there is anything you should bring just in case.

If you feel sick on the day of your admission, call the hospital in advance to let them know. They can instruct you what to do based on your symptoms.

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