Infection control

Infection control refers to policies and procedures used to minimize the riskof spreading infections, especially in hospitals and health care facilities.

The purpose of infection control is to reduce the occurrence of infectious diseases. These diseases are usually caused by bacteria or viruses and can be spread by human to human contact, animal to human contact, human contact withan infected surface, airborne transmission through tiny droplets of infectious agents suspended in the air, and, finally, by a common vehicle such as foodor water.

Infections obtained in hospitals are also called nosocomial infections. Theyoccur in approximately 5% of all hospital patients. This results in increasedtime spent in the hospital and, in some cases, death. There are many reasonsnosocomial infections are common, one of which is that many hospital patients have a weakened immune system which makes them more susceptible to infections. This weakened immune system can be caused either by the patient'sdiseases or by treatments given to the patient. Second, many medical procedures can increase the risk of infection by introducing infectious agents into the patient. Thirdly, many patients are admitted to hospitals because of infectious disease. These infectious agents can then be transferred from patient to patient by hospital workers or visitors.

Infection control has become a formal discipline in the United States since the 1950s, due to the spread of staphylococcal infections in hospitals. Because there is both the risk of health care providers acquiring infections themselves, and of them passing infections on to patients, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have established guidelines for infection control procedures. In addition to hospitals, infection control is important in nursing homes, clinics, child care centers, and restaurants, as well as in the home.

Due to constant changes in our lifestyles and environments, there are constantly new diseases that people are susceptible to, making protection from the threat of infectious disease urgent. Many new contagious diseases have been identified in the past 30 years, such as AIDS, Ebola, and hantavirus. Increased travel between continents makes the worldwide spread of disease a bigger concern than it once was. Additionally, many common infectious diseases have become resistant to known treatments.

Because of the overuse of antibiotics, many bacteria have developed a resistance to common antibiotics. This means that newer antibiotics must continuallybe developed in order to treat an infection. However, further resistance seems to come about almost simultaneously. This indicates to many scientists that it might become more and more difficult to treat infectious diseases. The use of antibiotics outside of medicine also contributes to increased antibiotic resistance. One example of this is the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. These negative trends can only be reversed by establishing a more rational use of antibiotics through treatment guidelines.

The goals of infection control programs are: immunizing against preventable diseases, defining precautions that can prevent exposure to infectious agents,and restricting the exposure of health care workers to an infectious agent.An infection control practitioner is a specially trained professional, oftena nurse, who oversees infection control programs.

Commonly recommended precautions to avoid and control the spread of infections include:

  • Vaccinate against diseases for which a vaccine is available.
  • Wash hands often.
  • Cook food thoroughly.
  • Use antibiotics only as directed.
  • See a doctor for infections that do not heal.
  • Avoid areas with a lot of insects.
  • Be cautious around unfamiliar animals.
  • Do not engage in unprotected sex or in intravenous drug use.
  • Inquire about infectious diseases when you travel.

Because of the higher risk of spreading infectious disease in a hospital setting, higher levels of precautions are taken there. Typically, health care workers wear gloves with all patients, since it is difficult to know whether a transmittable disease is present or not. Patients who have a known transmittable infectious disease are isolated to decrease the risk of transmitting the infectious agent to another person. Hospital workers who come in contact withinfected patients must wear gloves and gowns to decrease the risk of carryingthe infectious agent to other patients. All articles of equipment that are used in an isolation room are decontaminated before reuse. Patients who are immunocompromised may be put in protective isolation to decrease the risk of infectious agents being brought into their room. Any hospital worker with infections, including colds, are restricted from that room.

Hospital infections can also be transmitted through the air. Thus care must be taken when handling infected materials so as to decrease the numbers of infectious agents that become airborne. Special care should also taken with hospital ventilation systems to prevent recirculation of contaminated air.

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