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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.

A lot of the burden of keeping your hospital experience infection free, of course, rests with your hospital. Their procedures are critical to your health. However, there are thing patients can do to lessen the risk of hospital-acquired infection.

  • When you have a choice, choose a smaller hospital over a larger hospital. This is especially the case if you are having colon or hip replacement surgery. You want a hospital that has all the equipment and medical expertise you need, but not necessarily a huge, sprawling medical complex.
  • Ask that your doctors and nurses wash hands before examining you. Many healthcare professionals don't automatically do this. It's OK to ask, "Excuse me, but before you examine me, could you use the handwash?" Alcohol-based handwashes kill more germs than soap and water, and are usually available in every hospital room.
  • Don't assume that the gloves healthcare workers protect you against infection. If the healthcare didn't wash hands before putting on the gloves, the glovers are infected.
  • Before the doctor or nurses touches your skin with a stethoscope, ask that the diaphragm (the flat part of the stethoscope) be wiped with alcohol. Stethoscopes can transmit bacteria, including MRSA.
  • If you have to have a central line, ask your doctor to use a catheter that is impregnated with antibiotics or coated with silver chlorhexidine to prevent infections. If you have an IV port in your wrist or arm, make sure it is changed every few days to prevent infections. Hospital nurses will usually replace any IV's you receive in an ambulance for this reason. It can be unpleasant to get an IV, but it is more unpleasant to get an infection.
  • If you know you are having surgery ahead of time, starting bathing with chlorhexidine soap 5 to 7 days before the procedure. This will kill many of the bacteria living on your skin without causing antibiotic resistance.
  • Ask about warming blankets in the operating room. Your body can resist infection better when you are warm. Especially when the surgical procedure involves high-tech imaging equipment, it is likely to be kept very cold. Blankets, booties, and caps can keep you warm (although many times what you will get is a pre-heated blanket).
  • Don't shave the surgical site yourself before the procedure. This can break the skin and increase the risk of infection.
  • Avoid touching your hands to your mouth, and do not set utensils or food on anything other than your food tray. This will help you avoid exposure to Clostridium dificile.
  • If you are diabetic, be careful about monitoring your blood sugar levels before your procedure. Bacteria thrive on high blood sugar levels. Controlling blood sugar levels is especially important after heart surgery.
  • Make sure any IV line you receive in the hospital is replaced under clean conditions every 3 or 4 days. Your skin should be cleansed at the site of the new IV line, and your nurse should be wearing gloves to do the insertion. Let your nurses know immediately if any redness occurs around an IV port.
  • If you can take yourself to the bathroom, wash your own hands both before and after using the toilet. Washing your hands before you touch infection-susceptible parts of your anatomy can reduce the risk that you will transfer infections from your hospital bed or other hospital room surfaces to your body.

Hospitals don't make it easy to get information on how well they control infections. You may have to rely on your own observations. Most medical personnel, however, no matter how overworked, will be glad to cooperate to keep you well.

  • 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: www.flickr.com/photos/niaid/8436193898
  • Photo courtesy of NIAID via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/niaid/8436193898
  • Photo courtesy of Kenny Holston 21 via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/kennyholston/4402780781

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