Tips to Avoid Hospital Infections

Staff, patients, and visitors must all play a part

All U.S. hospitals follow standard precautions. These are infection-control practices such as wearing gloves, properly disposing of contaminated materials, and so on. While having these is place is reassuring, compliance can vary. And even when hospital staffers reliably take every step to avoid the spread of infection, transmission can and does occur.

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

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.

That means that you must make sure you're also taking an active role in protecting yourself and others while you are a hospital patient or visitor.

Here's how, including ways to do your part to thwart antibiotic resistance.

How to Prevent Infection

Healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) are a concern in American hospitals as well as those around the world. Where there are ill people, there is risk, no matter the circumstances.

In an effort to stem the tide of these infections, 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 in the United States. From 2008 to 2014:

While you can't control what happens during a procedure or throughout the course of your care, or that of a loved one, you can take some simple steps to keep this trend going.

Wash Your Hands

Washing your hands properly with soap and water (or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol) reduces the risk of infection. This should be done 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

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 be readily 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 the hospital.

Prevent Respiratory Infection

Among the lessons the public learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of social distancing and face masks.

In hospitals, where respiratory infections are common, adhering to these guidelines not only protects you but those around you from a host of infections that can be passed through respiratory droplets and airborne particles.

To prevent the transmission of respiratory infections in a hospital:

  • Wear a face mask, especially when around others or in a ward or shared room.
  • Stand at least three feet (and ideally six feet) away 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.

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

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 being treated at a hospital or planning to visit one, being up-to-date on your vaccinations is recommended 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 Help Prevent Antibiotic Resistance

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

Other antibiotic-resistant bacteria of growing concern to public health officials include:

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 this occurs, the deeper and more serious antibiotic resistance can become.

If you are prescribed antibiotics, take them as 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.

Reducing 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 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 they are administering an injection. This includes refraining from holding a loved one's hand.
  • Avoid asking questions when an injection is being given to prevent distraction.
  • Resist jerking or flinching when you are given an injection or the needle is being removed.
  • Avoid a sharps injury by never touching a sharps container. Keep your child well away from the box as well.

A Word From Verywell

Preventing hospital infections is a team effort that involves every person who enters the building.

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

And if you expect visitors to your hospital room, establish rules upfront so they know what they can and cannot do before they arrive. This includes gifts they should not bring.

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