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Infections patients catch while in the hospital kill over 75,000 people per year just in the United States, more than car crashes and breast cancer combined. Here's why nospital infections are a major problem, and what you can do to avoid them.

Every year 35 million Americans are admitted at least once into hospital care. Every year 1.4 million Americans catch some kind of infection while they are hospital patients, and over 75,000 die as a result. More Americans die from infections they catch in the hospital than die from airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, or AIDS. As antibiotic resistance spreads around the world, many of these infections are difficult or impossible to treat.  It is only in very recent years, however, that hospitals have started doing anything about these facts.

Hot Zones in the Hospital

About 25 percent of all nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections, about 350,000 infections a year, are spread by contaminated devices. These infections are spread by urinary catheters, ventilators, and central lines, also known as central venous catheters, which are IV lines that are inserted in the neck, chest, or groin, and allowed to stay in place for days or weeks at a time.

Hospitals have been making progress in controlling infections spread by these kinds of devices for several years. Urinary tract infections spread by catheters, pneumonia spread by ventilators, and "blood poisoning" caused by central lines are less common than they were even in 2010. However, there are other kinds of infections that are still far from controlled.

  • About 280,000 patients every year develop surgical-site infections. In 2012, an antibiotic-resistant strain of Klebsiella that appeared in a Centers for Disease Control facility escaped containment and killed dozens of people. (The writer of this article caught this strain in hospital and was sick for months.) Thousands more are infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA.
  • About 280,000 patients every year contract pneumonia through the hospital ventilation system.
  • About 230,000 patients every year contract gastrointestinal infections, about 2/3 of them with the bacterium Clostridium difficile.

Most hospitals don't even keep track of infections other than those caused by MRSA or Clostridium. To be fair, hospital infections are much less common in the United States than they were in the 1970's or earlier, and some estimates put the total number of infections per year at less than 1 million. However, hospitals still have a long way to go to make their wards infection-proof.

Are You Someone Who Is Likely to Catch an Infection in the Hospital?

The procedures most likely to result in a hospital-acquired infection are amputations of the toes or feet, hip replacement, colostomy (removal of the colon), and small bowel surgery. The older a patient, the more likely he or she is to contract an infection in the hospital. Patients in critical care or the ICU are more likely to catch infections, and the longer someone stays in the hospital, the more likely he or she is to catch something.

Larger hospitals are more likely to have problems with infections than smaller hospitals, and hospitals that treat patients from all over the world, that is, prestigious hospitals that are well known for certain kinds of care, seem to treat patients with more infections. Getting IV antibiotics before a procedure is no guarantee one will not get an infection, and neither is getting tested for infections (with nasal swabs or rectal swabs) when you are admitted to the hospital.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Magill SS, Edwards JR, Bamberg W, Beldavs ZG, Dumyati G, Kainer MA, Lynfield R, Maloney M, McAllister-Hollod L, Nadle J, Ray SM, Thompson DL, Wilson LE, Fridkin SK
  • Emerging Infections Program Healthcare-Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Use Prevalence Survey Team. Multistate point-prevalence survey of health care-associated infections. N Engl J Med. 2014 Mar 27. 370(13):1198-208. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1306801.PMID: 24670166.
  • Photo courtesy of NIAID via Flickr:
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