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Preventing infections when visiting

Description

Infections are illnesses that are caused by germs such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Patients in the hospital are already ill. Exposing them to these germs may make it harder for them to recover and go home.

If you are visiting a friend or loved one, you need to take steps to prevent spreading germs.

The best way to stop the spread of germs is to wash your hands often, stay home if you are sick, and to keep your immunizations up to date.

Hand Washing and Alcohol-based Hand Cleaners

Clean your hands:

  • When you enter and leave a patient's room
  • After using the bathroom
  • After touching a patient
  • Before and after using gloves

Remind family, friends, and health care providers to wash their hands before entering a patient's room.

To wash your hands:

  • Wet your hands and wrists, then apply soap.
  • Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds so the soap gets bubbly.
  • Remove rings or scrub under them.
  • If your fingernails are dirty, use a scrub brush.
  • Rinse your hands clean with running water.
  • Dry your hands with a clean paper towel.
  • Do not touch the sink and faucets after you wash your hands. Use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

You may also use alcohol-based hand cleaners (sanitizers) if your hands are not visibly soiled.

  • Dispensers can be found in a patient's room and throughout a hospital or other health care facility.
  • Apply a dime-sized amount of sanitizer in the palm of one hand.
  • Rub your hands together, making sure all surfaces on both sides of your hands are covered.
  • Rub until your hands are dry.

Stay Home If You Are Sick

Staff and visitors should stay home if they feel sick or have a fever. This helps protect everyone in the hospital.

If you think you were exposed to chickenpox, the flu, or any other infections, stay home.

Remember, what may seem like just a little cold to you can be a big problem for someone who is sick and in the hospital. If you are not sure if it is safe to visit, call your doctor or nurse and ask them about your symptoms before you visit the hospital.

Isolation

Anybody who visits a hospital patient who has an isolation sign outside their door should stop at the nurses' station before entering the patient's room.

Isolation precautions create barriers that help prevent the spread of germs in the hospital. They are needed to protect you and the patient you are visiting. The precautions are also needed to protect other patients in the hospital.

When a patient is in isolation, visitors may:

  • Need to wear gloves, a gown, a mask, or some other covering
  • Need to avoid touching the patient
  • Not be allowed into a patient's room at all

Other Things You Can Do to Prevent Infections

Hospital patients who are very old, very young, or very ill are at the greatest risk of harm from infections such as colds and the flu. To prevent getting the flu and passing it to others, get a flu vaccine each year. (Ask your doctor what other vaccines you need.)

When you visit a patient in the hospital, keep your hands away from your face. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or into the crease of your elbow, not into the air.

References

Infection control. In: Mills JE, ed. Nursing Procedures. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009:chap 2.

Updated: 2/3/2014

Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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