Health Care Workers: Avoiding Infections at Work

Health Care Workers: Avoiding Infections at Work Family Doctor Logo

How can I keep myself from getting an infection at work?

As a health care worker, you may be exposed to many different sources of infection. Infections may be transmitted by blood, body fluids, air, respiratory secretions (for example, by a cough or sneeze), or by direct contact with other infectious materials. You can protect yourself from infection by:

  • Following the infection control guidelines in your workplace
  • Using personal protective equipment (for example, gloves and masks)
  • Treating all blood and body fluids as though they are infectious.

What are blood-borne pathogens?

Blood-borne pathogens are infectious agents (for example, bacteria and viruses) carried in the blood that can cause disease. Examples of blood-borne pathogens include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the hepatitis B virus, syphilis, and the hepatitis C virus.

Do all body fluids carry blood-borne pathogens?

Body fluids that can carry blood-borne pathogens include the following:

  • Blood and blood components (for example, plasma)
  • Semen
  • Vaginal secretions
  • Pericardial fluid (fluid around the heart)
  • Peritoneal fluid (fluid in the lining of the abdomen and pelvis)
  • Joint fluid
  • Amniotic fluid (fluid around an unborn baby during pregnancy)
  • Pleural fluid (fluid in the lungs)
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (fluid in the brain and spinal cord)

Body fluids such as tears, sweat, saliva, urine, and vomit are not expected to carry blood-borne pathogens unless you can see blood in them.

How can I protect myself from getting infected?

The following guidelines can help you protect yourself:

  • Consider every patient to be infected. Avoid contact with his or her blood or other body fluids.
  • Avoid risky behavior when using needles and other sharp instruments (including scissors, scalpels, blades, and knives). For example, do not try to recap needles. Carefully dispose of sharp instruments in appropriate containers.
  • Wear protective equipment (including gloves and face shields) when you are performing procedures that may cause splashes of blood or other body fluids.
  • Be certain you are immunized against hepatitis B. This vaccine should be offered to you at your workplace.

What should I do if I’m exposed to blood by a cut, a needle-stick, or a splash?

If your skin has no breaks, cracks, or rashes, you have almost no risk of being infected by a blood-borne pathogen from a splash of blood. Immediately wash the affected area thoroughly.

If your skin is broken by a needle-stick or blood splashes onto broken skin, immediately wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water. If blood splashes into your eyes or mouth, immediately flush your eyes or mouth with water. Get medical attention right away. Do not wait to tell your employer or the employee health service about the incident. Delaying treatment will increase your risk.

Both you and the source patient will be tested. The source patient’s current and past infections will also be checked.

  • If the source patient has HIV, you may need to take preventive medicines. These medicines should be started within hours of the incident.
  • If the source patient is infected with hepatitis B, and you did not develop immunity to hepatitis B after being immunized, you will be given hepatitis B immune globulin.
  • If the source patient has syphilis, you will be treated with antibiotics.
  • If the source patient has hepatitis C, you should be tested for the virus. If you are infected with hepatitis C, talk to your doctor about treatment. The standard treatment for hepatitis C is a combination of antiviral medicines.

Depending on the risks posed by the source patient, you may need to have follow-up blood tests to check for infection.

How can I protect myself from tuberculosis infection?

It’s important to know which patients might have tuberculosis. Infected patients may have symptoms such as a chronic cough (lasting for weeks and bringing up mucus or blood), weight loss, fever, or night sweats. You could catch this disease by breathing in droplets that get into the air when an infected patient coughs. If you work around any patients who have tuberculosis, wear a protective mask. Have infected patients wear a mask and isolate them from other patients. In an office setting, move them out of the waiting room. In a hospital setting, put them in isolation.

I haven’t had chickenpox. Should I get the varicella vaccine?

If you haven’t had chickenpox, you should have a blood test to check for immunity. Most adults are immune to varicella (the virus that causes chickenpox), even if they haven’t had chickenpox. If the test shows that you aren’t immune to varicella, you should have the 2-shot varicella vaccine series. If you aren’t immunized, you’re at risk of getting chickenpox and spreading it to patients.

I have had chickenpox. Can I get infected again?

Usually, people who have had chickenpox are immune to varicella. However, in rare cases, people can get chickenpox a second time. This can happen even if a blood test shows that you are immune to varicella. There is no 100% certain way to avoid this. Chickenpox is usually milder the second time. If you have a second round of chickenpox, tell your supervisor as soon as you find out so you can avoid contact with patients.

Is pertussis prevented by immunization?

After children are immunized against pertussis (whooping cough), the immunity only lasts until they are teenagers. This means teenagers and adults can get pertussis. A combined tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis booster vaccine (Tdap) is available for both teenagers and adults. Adults who work in health care should receive the booster once every 10 years to reduce the chance of pertussis. Pertussis is responsible for some coughs or cases of bronchitis that seem to “hang on” longer than the usual cold. If your cold lasts more than 2 weeks, you should see your doctor. Pertussis can be life-threatening to unimmunized infants.

A note about vaccines

Sometimes the amount of a certain vaccine cannot keep up with the number of people who need it. More info…