Infectious diseases have always been a top concern in any healthcare setting, but the rise in superbugs and antibiotic resistant pathogens has placed a greater emphasis on this public health issue. Without the proper precautions, outbreaks can spread not only between individuals in hospitals, but to entire communities and beyond. Nurses serve a critical role in infection control by being mindful of their daily habits and providing patient education. An online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) program explores the principles of epidemiology as well as interventional and preventive strategies.
How Common Are Infections?
Healthcare-associated infections (HAI) can occur in any clinical setting, from hospitals and nursing homes to emergency clinics and physician practices. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 31 hospital patients has at least one HAI.
Due to the invasive medical interventions frequently used in healthcare today, certain infections can result, including:
- Central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSI)
- Catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTI)
- Surgical site infections (SSI)
- Ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP)
Specific pathogens often seen in healthcare settings are:
- Clostridioides difficile (C. diff)
- Gram-negative bacteria
- Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
How Can Nurses Prevent Infections?
There are several ways nurses can prevent or slow the spread of germs. Since infections are opportunistic, all it takes is just a small breach in nursing protocol combined with several patients in close quarters — many of whom are already immunocompromised — to cause an outbreak. Approaching patient care with an attentiveness to detail and an abundance of caution is imperative.
Hand hygiene. Nurses are in close contact with dozens of patients each day and exposure to bodily fluids such as saliva, vomit, blood and feces occur on a repeated basis. Nurses also touch beds, doorknobs, computers, medical devices, food and hundreds of other surfaces throughout a shift, creating an ideal setting for the spread of germs. Hand hygiene is a simple but very effective infection control method that includes washing with soap and water and applying alcohol-based sanitizer.
The CDC's Clean Hands Count campaign encourages nurses, patients, caretakers and visitors to practice good hand hygiene by cleaning their hands frequently. At a minimum, hands should be sanitized in each of the following situations:
- After touching doorknobs
- After using the restroom
- After touching bedrails, bedside tables, remote controls or phones
- After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
- Before eating
- Before touching your eyes, nose or mouth
- Before and after changing bandages
Standard precautions. These are preventive practices used to deter the transmission of pathogens. Here are precautions RNs should be taking in daily practice as well as high-risk situations, in addition to hand hygiene:
- Wearing gloves when touching blood, body fluids, mucous membranes or broken skin
- Using other personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gowns or eyewear when blood or other bodily fluids may splash or spray
- Following isolation protocols and use of respirators
- Safe needle handling where recapping is avoided and contents are placed in puncture-resistant containers
- Disinfecting and cleaning spills, surfaces, patient rooms and devices like blood pressure monitors
- Handling linens and soiled bedding
- Disposing of trash and hazardous waste
Patient education. Nurses are often responsible for patient education. This includes providing instruction on surgical site or wound care, self-administration of medications, and the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations. A significant portion of patient education focuses on preventing and minimizing the spread of illness and disease.
Nurses provide a substantial frontline defense in the fight against infectious diseases. By understanding how pathogens spread, taking precautions to prevent transmission, and facilitating patient education, nurses can greatly reduce the likelihood of outbreaks and improve the safety of all involved.
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