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Six simple ways to prevent hospital infections and save your life

The CDC recently reported that infection rates are down in many hospitals. 

This is progress, but every day more than 200 Americans with health care-associated infections die during their hospital stay.  Most of these deaths could have been prevented.

Making health care safer is a team effort, and you, as a patient or the loved one of a patient, are an important part of that team. Advocating for yourself or your loved one may save a life.

Every day more than 200 Americans with health care-associated infections die during their hospital stay.  Most of these deaths could have been prevented.

How can you do that? Here are six suggestions that could save your life:

1. Speak up. Ask questions about your care. Know what medicines you’re taking and why you’re taking them.  If you have concerns about your health or your care, share those concerns.  The information you share might be critical in getting you the care you need.

You’re not alone if you’re hesitant to ask questions of your doctor or health care provider.  But it’s critical.

Ask what’s being done to protect you from infections.  Bring a family member or friend to be your advocate.  They can ask questions as well and help you remember the recommendations from your doctor or nurse.

Watch your health care team and make sure everyone cleans their hands before they touch you. Every time. If they forget, help them remember. 

2. Keep hands clean. Clean hands save lives. Studies show that when health care workers clean their hands when they should, infections drop by about 30 percent. Some studies show even higher reductions.

It’s better to get over the awkwardness of asking than try to get over a life-threatening infection.  The same goes for your visitors – everyone should wash their hands.

3. Get smart about antibiotics. We recommend that you, or your loved one, take antibiotics only when your health care provider thinks you need them. Don’t assume you need one, and if your doctor recommends an antibiotic, ask whether you really need it.

If you take antibiotics when you don’t need them, you’re potentially exposing yourself to unnecessary side effects. If you do need antibiotics, take them exactly as they’re prescribed. Stopping a course of antibiotics early can result in drug resistance and future problems.

4. Know the signs and symptoms of infection. Be alert to changes in your own health. If you have a catheter in your vein (a central line) and the skin around it becomes red or painful, or you develop a fever, let someone know.  Every day ask if it’s time for that central line, and other catheters such as urinary catheters, to come out.

5. Know the signs of deadly diarrhea. If you’re currently taking or have recently taken antibiotics and you develop diarrhea, let your health care provider know. Tell your doctor if you have three or more diarrhea episodes in 24 hours, especially if you’ve been taking an antibiotic.

6. Get a flu shot. Every year. Getting the flu can make you more vulnerable to other bugs and infections. That simple shot will protect you and your loved ones as well.

CDC is working to protect patients wherever they receive their medical care. President’s Obama’s budget proposal for 2015 requests funding so we can increase our efforts to stop deadly infections in health care settings, especially those caused by drug-resistant germs.  These efforts will protect patients and save lives.

Work in partnership with your health care team and advocate for your own safe health care.

Your own participation is critical. It can feel awkward. You may be reluctant to “challenge” your health care team. But the more active you are, the safer you will be from life-threatening infections.

Tom Frieden, M.D. is the director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Follow him on Twitter@DrFriedenCDC. To like the CDC on Facebook, click here