Tips to Avoid Hospital Infections

Many are saved by hospitals. Believe me, I've worked places where many couldn't reach a hospital.

Antibiotics save lives. And yes, I've been where antibiotics are out of reach.

But as an infectious disease doctor, I also worry about how hospitals can make us sick. We work to keep hospitals healthy and antibiotics working. Hospitals can spread the disease that it's our mission, as doctors, to protect our patients from.

There are three things that matter: Infection Control, Needle Safety, and Antibiotic Resistance.

As a visitor or a patient, what can you do?

Patient being wheeled on a gurney to the elevator

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Infection Control

Sometimes, infections spread, even in a hospital.

Each year, 20 million in the US catch norovirus which causes vomiting and diarrhea. Outbreaks spread fast, especially in nursing homes as well as some hospital wards. Vomiting and diarrhea speed spread as billions of virus particles are released and fewer than a couple dozen are needed to infect us.

In hospitals, we've learned to avoid these problems. We identify potential infectious patients quickly. We isolate these patients even before we are sure. We put them in rooms where airflow can't infect others if their infection is airborne. We require gloves, masks, eye shields or whatever is appropriate to avoid a patient transmitting infections to others.

But what can a visitor or a patient do?

Wash Your Hands

Washing hands with soap and water (or hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol) reduces spreading or catching infections. This should be before and after seeing a patient. It's something that's easy, but also easy to forget.

Don't Touch Your Face

We touch our faces a lot, maybe 15 times an hour. This spreads bugs from our hands to our nose and mouth, spreading fecal-oral and respiratory bugs, from diarrheal illnesses to colds.

Be Vaccinated

Patients are hospitalized for a reason. Their immune systems may not handle any (other) infections. What may be a touch of the flu to you, may be something they can't fight off. Healthcare workers sometimes spread vaccinable infections to their patients. It is important that we are vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable. 

Stay Home If Ill

Avoid visiting patients if ill. If not, sneezes should be covered with a tissue or upper sleeve and we shouldn't touch anything we can avoid.

Reduce Risk to Healthcare Workers and Yourself

Each year, 385,000 healthcare professionals are pricked by a needle or other sharp instrument. The risk of HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or other diseases is very low. But it's still a risk no one should have to take. In hospitals we work to avoid this risk: not recapping needles, using blunt and standardized needles, and other measures.

You can help by:

  • Never Getting in the Nurse's Way: Needlestick risks for nurses and doctors rise with distractions. Medical professionals need to concentrate and shouldn't answer questions when they are doing a procedure.
  • Not Touching the Sharps Box: In any major hospital, each room has a box or waste bin designed for sharps (needles, scalpels). This protects maintenance personnel and everyone. Sometimes someone will push something into a sharps bin. Needles don't compress; they can stick you instead. Sometimes a child will reach for shiny needles. Just avoid these.

Antibiotic Resistance

Since 1928 when we first fought bacteria with antibiotics, we've watched bacteria reclaim their turf. Bacteria have an assortment of genes that resist antibiotics. If we can reduce infections and antibiotic usage, we can reduce the drug resistance that develops.

Take Antibiotics as Prescribed

If you need them, you need them. If you don't. you don't. If you need them, you need to take the full amount prescribed. Antibiotic over-usage (and under-usage) leads to resistance and other infections, like C Diff (Clostridium difficile) that grow when other bacteria are wiped out with antibiotics.

Extra Infection Control

We need to be cautious of not just visible infections, but bugs we unknowingly carry, like drug-resistant bacteria, including MRSA. We may take extra precautions (gloves, separate rooms) and always wash our hands when visiting patients carrying these infections.

Avoid anything unnecessary

Anything foreign—a urinary catheter, a large IV (PICC or central line), even a tube for intubation—can be an infection portal. We try to remove these whenever it is safe.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Telebriefing – New Vital Signs Report: How can we prevent norovirus outbreaks from contaminated food? Updated June 3, 2014.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hand hygiene.

  3. Kwok YL, Gralton J, McLaws ML. Face touching: a frequent habit that has implications for hand hygieneAm J Infect Control. 2015;43(2):112‐114. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2014.10.015

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended vaccines for healthcare workers. Updated May 2, 2016.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improving antibiotic prescribing in hospitals can make health care safer. Updated March 4, 2014.