Hospital Infections: Know the Facts About Your Risk

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Woman smiling in hospital bed

Most people think of hospitals as a place to get better. But, can being in the hospital make you sicker? Sometimes what's in the news makes you wonder. 

In early 2015, news reports said some patients having gallbladder and pancreas surgery with specialized scopes had contracted infections from so-called “superbugs." These are bacteria that do not respond to drug treatment.  Some of the patients died. In other cases, patients have contracted a type of staph infection from bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics. This infection is known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

So, to answer the question: Yes, it's possible to get such infections while in the hospital. It's not common, however. Hospitals have a variety of very effective infection control practices in place to prevent infections. 

What Hospitals Do to Protect Patients 

Two federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—are working to make hospitals as safe as possible for patients. Many rules are in place to prevent superbug, MRSA and other infections. 

For instance:

  • Hospital staff must wash their hands with soap and water before and after caring for a patient. They also must do this before and after they touch any tubes, including IVs, that go into a patient's body.

  • Staff and visitors must wear gloves, a gown and a mask before entering the room of any patient with a contagious disease. Patients who have infectious diseases are in private rooms or share a room only with someone who has the same disease. Staff members must remove their gloves and gowns before leaving the patient’s room.

  • Staff must follow specific procedures for cleaning and disinfecting all patient rooms and treatment areas. Rules exist for cleaning medical equipment, too.

  • Medical staff must remove temporary medical devices—such as catheters and IVs—as soon as possible.

  • Hospital staff test patients for dangerous bacteria soon after they enter the hospital. Once they have identified the bacteria, the patient can be isolated in a separate hospital room. This helps prevent the bacteria from being transmitted to other patients.

Also, the agencies and other health experts urge doctors to prescribe antibiotics only when truly needed. Antibiotics are effective for clearing bacterial infections, not infections from viruses or other types of germs. Overuse of these drugs causes a serious problem called antibiotic resistance. That's when the germs are able to resist the effect the drugs should have on them. Then, when people get sick, the drugs cannot kill the germs causing the infection.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

To keep everyone safe and healthy, hospitals need the help of patients, too. Here are some things to keep in mind when you're a patient:

  • Just like the hospital staff, wash your hands often. Do this before and after you eat. Do it before and after you use the bathroom. Wash before and after you touch any medical equipment. This includes catheters and bandages. If you can’t get to a bathroom to wash, ask the hospital staff to bring you alcohol swabs. If you blow your nose or cough, head for the sink or reach for hand gel.

  • Tell your doctors if you have been treated elsewhere. Also tell them if you have recently been to another country. The chance is small, but it is possible the facility or country is on the list of places with outbreaks of infection.

  • If you are going to the hospital for surgery, ask your doctor if you should take an antibiotic before the operation starts. If the answer is yes, then you or a family member should check that you get it on the day of your surgery.

  • Operating rooms can be cold places. But, you need to stay warm during surgery. Don't be shy: Tell the hospital staff if you are cold. Ask for blankets, booties and a hat. You can also ask the staff to warm your IV. People who are warm during surgery seem to have a greater resistance to infection.

  • Don’t be afraid to speak up or ask questions. If you see any hospital staff not following proper procedures, let a hospital official know. It's also okay to ask the people on your healthcare team what they’re doing to keep you from getting an infection.

Preventing Antibiotic Resistance

As a patient, you also should do your part to fight antibiotic resistance. This means taking antibiotics only when you really need them. Don't pressure your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic. There may be other ways you can get better. If your doctor does give you an antibiotic, take it exactly as prescribed. If you don’t do this, such as finishing the full course of medicine, some of the bacteria may survive. This makes it possible for the germs to change in a way that makes them resistant to the drug in the future.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 May 3
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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