When you go to the hospital, you inevitably increase your risk of contracting certain infections. Exposure to harmful bacteria can lead to illnesses as minor as the common cold to as serious as sepsis, a condition that kills more than 250,000 Americans each year, according to the Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis occurs when an infection sends the immune system into overdrive, potentially leading to organ failure, tissue damage, and yes, death.
Over 1.6 million Americans are diagnosed with sepsis each year, and the fact that the number of antibiotic-resistant strains is growing isn’t helping. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce your risk of developing sepsis. Indeed, preventing infection is one of the top ways to do so.
Fox News spoke to Dr. Jim O’Brien, an ICU doctor and system vice president of quality at OhioHealth in Columbus, Ohio, and Dr. Thomas Fraser, vice chair of the department of infectious disease and medical director for infection prevention at the Cleveland Clinic, for their tips on preventing hospital infections.
1. Minimize phyiscal contact with people.
“If you’re in the hospital, don’t let anyone touch you,” O’Brien said. That includes doctors, visitors, and other patients (barring any needed treatment, of course). That’s because bacteria are most commonly transmitted via hands, O’Brien explained. He noted that doctors and visitors should always wash their hands when entering and exiting a room (patients can always request this as well). Gloves alone are not protective — instead, they are mostly useful in protecting a person’s hands from the secretions of others, he said.
2. Follow your doctor’s directions.
It’s essential for patients to follow the directions surgeons or physicians provide to reduce the risk of infection, O’Brien said. That might be as simple as bathing as directed or as difficult as trying to quit smoking before a surgery, as smoking can increase the risk of infection.
3. Get up and walk around when you can.
“The more mobile you are, the less likely you are to get things like pneumonia in the hospital,” Fraser said. That’s because you take bigger breaths: When you’re lying in bed, you may not take the deep breaths needed to open up your lungs, which causes secretions to pool there and increases your risk of pneumonia, he said.
4. The sooner you can get any tubes out, the better.
Tubes that penetrate the skin — including IVs, tubes into the nose, or catheters in the bladder to drain urine — allow entry points for bacteria to get into the body, increasing the risk of infection, O’Brien said. The sooner you can get those tubes out of you — even if you have to use a bed pan or urinal instead — the better, he told Fox News. He noted that patients and families can be proactive and ask the staff about removing any tubes that may no longer be necessary.
5. Ask questions and be an advocate.
Both doctors stressed the importance of being your own health advocate. “We want patients to feel that they can speak up about anything,” Fraser said. O’Brien agreed, noting that patients and their loved ones are in the position to be the best advocates. Ultimately, he said, it’s important to remember that patients, families, and their caregivers are all trying to accomplish the same thing: getting you (the patient) better.
And although hospitals don’t have one single assessment of safety or quality that patients can research in advance, O’Brien said, he noted that he personally looks for hospitals that report their own safety data online and highlight any issues they may have had in the past. That level of honesty and transparency can indicate a sign of good care.