Although most people think of hospitals as a place to get better when they're sick, the unfortunate truth is that tens of thousands of people pick up nasty infections when they're in the hospital. In fact, according to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), about 80,000 patients get infections in hospitals every year, and about 30,000 of them die. And besides the human toll, there's a financial one-these infections collectively cost billions of dollars to treat.

A typical hospital-acquired infection is a staphylococcus, or staph, infection. These powerful bacteria are hard to treat even with antibiotics, which is why they're sometimes called "superbugs." Patients commonly get staph infections through intravenous lines, catheters, dialysis tubes or other implants. They may also get infections in wounds or in their lungs. 

Experts say that hospital-acquired infections are almost completely avoidable. The key is getting hospitals to take the steps required to protect patients. In a recent survey administered by APIC, more than half of healthcare providers admitted that they don't have enough time to devote to infection prevention because they are too busy overseeing staff and writing reports. Seventy percent said they don't have adequate time to train colleagues in infection prevention.

How can you ensure that you avoid a nasty infection while you're in the hospital? Take the following steps:

  • Wash your hands. Be scrupulous about your own cleanliness, and insist that any visitors, nurses, and doctors wash their hands when entering your room.
  • Be observant. Do your bandages look clean or could they use a change? Are they wet? Are they coming away from your skin? Is the area around your wound or point of tube insertion unusually red or tender? Speak up.
  • Ask that all medical devices and instruments be wiped with alcohol before being used on you. Make sure hospital staff uses gloves at all times.
  • Keep your hands away from your mouth. For that matter, avoid letting utensils or food touch your bed sheets or furniture.
  • Try to avoid a urinary catheter. If you can get to the bathroom, try to do so. Or ask for a bedpan.
  • If you need surgery, ask your doctor to ensure that you stay warm during the procedure. Warm bodies fight infection better than cold ones.


Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths,

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality,

Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology,