Should I Be Worried About Getting Sick When I Go To The Hospital?

Should I Be Worried About Getting Sick When I Go To The Hospital?

Hospitals can be scary places. Whether you’re visiting a loved one or checking in yourself, many people are worried about contracting hard-to-treat illnesses or picking up something nasty from other patients. Let’s talk about how realistic your chances of coming down with something are, and what you can do to lower your risk.

Photo by Sugree Phatanapherom.

Don’t Be Too Worried When You’re Just Visiting

Yes, it is possible to catch something when you visit hospitals and doctor’s offices, but it’s possible to catch something anywhere you go. We spoke with Meagan Garibay, a Resident Nurse and Clinical Educator at Comanche County Memorial Hospital, and she explained that your day to day activities generally put you at just as much risk of getting sick, if not more.

Illnesses like the cold and flu are highly contagious, and can be spread by touching a surface someone coughed or sneezed on, or just being within close proximity of someone who’s infected. When you’re just visiting a hospital, it’s certainly possible that you’ll encounter infected individuals, but as Garibay points out, you’re just as likely to get infected by grabbing a shopping cart that someone with the flu just used.

So the real question here isn’t whether it’s possible to get sick in these places, but whether you’re more likely to get sick in these places because you’re surrounded by a higher concentration of infected people. To cut to the chase, no. If you can avoid the close proximity “danger zone” that viruses like influenza require for transmission, Garibay suggests other methods of infection in a hospital are unlikely:

While there are some diseases that can be transmitted by airborne transmission, these are really much more limited than the average person probably thinks. Just being in the hospital or doctor’s office and breathing the air inside those places is not enough to get you sick.

Essentially, as long as you stay out of marked quarantine areas and practice good hand hygiene (which we’ll get to later), you’re already avoiding a great deal of risk right off the bat. When you’re just visiting someone in the hospital, you don’t need to cover your mouth with your shirt to breathe, and you certainly don’t need a medical mask to sit in the waiting room. You probably want to avoid sitting next to people coughing and sneezing all over the place, but that should be the case anywhere you go.

What You Should Actually Be Concerned About

When it comes to infections in medical facilities, the real danger is to the patients. As a patient, you’re usually placed in even closer proximity to other sick patients (probably with different illnesses), can be treated with improperly sterilized hospital equipment, and even your own physician could be carrying an infection if they haven’t been following safety protocols. This means you’re at high risk of contracting nosocomial infections or “healthcare-associated infections” (HAIs). These are infections patients develop while being treated for something else. For example, you could check into the hospital with some broken bones and develop the flu. Or you could be visiting your grandmother being treated for something simple, like dehydration, and accidentally give her pneumonia.

So even if you’re admitted for something that isn’t too serious, it’s extremely important for your visitors to practice safe hygiene (more on that later). The same goes for if you’re visiting someone else. Of course, before you decide to never check into a hospital again, or never visit a sick family member in fear of infecting them, it’s important to keep in mind that a good chunk of HAIs aren’t serious.

Still, there are some infections that are much more serious than others; like the nastiest of them all, Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). This is a type of bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics, and can cause severe problems for patients whose bodies are already weak from being sick. MRSA is spread by direct contact with an infected wound or from contaminated hands, and about 2% of people carry it without even knowing it. Even if you don’t show any signs of infection, you can carry and spread it too. Because a time consuming lab culture is the only way to know for sure that it’s MRSA, it can be too late to do anything.

Fortunately, new protocols and safety procedures has led to a steady decline in the number of MRSA infections in healthcare settings. Hospitals have been taking on effective new strategies to keep MRSA at bay, so whether you’re a patient or visitor, there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

How to Reduce the Chances of Infection for Everyone

Whether you’re just visiting someone in the hospital, or checking in yourself, there are some simple and effective prevention methods you and your loved ones can follow to keep life-threatening infections at bay. We spoke with Melissa Brower, a Public Affairs Specialist with the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion branch of the CDC, and she has some suggestions for hospital visitors:

We believe that the risk to visitors is low. However, risks to patients from visitors is probably much higher, so we recommend that people never visit patients if they are ill themselves. We also recommend that everyone who visits a healthcare facility take basic steps for infection control, such as practicing good hand hygiene. There may be times when visitors will need to take additional steps while visiting a patient, such as wearing a gown and gloves while in the patient’s room. The healthcare personnel caring for the patient can advise on any additional precautions that may be needed.

We’ve mentioned good hand hygiene a few times already, but what does that mean, exactly? Nurse Garibay gives a great example of where to start:

The majority of illness occurs when we touch surfaces that have a virus hanging out on them, and then touch our face, our mouth, our nose, or our eyes without washing our hands first. So, the most effective way of preventing the majority of illnesses we come into contact with is simply by washing your hands… people should always make a conscious effort to not touch any part of their face without using hand sanitizer first. This is a really hard habit to break, but your immune system will thank you.

Hand sanitizer is an effective way to keep your hands clean, especially if it contains 70% or more alcohol. It’s widely used in the medical community and can kill the cold and flu viruses. If you’re visiting someone in the hospital, it doesn’t hurt to apply some to your hands when you see a dispenser. Keep in mind, however, that hand sanitizer won’t kill everything under the sun. Norovirus, stomach flu, and clostridium difficile, a bacteria that can cause severe diarrhoea and intestinal problems, can still live through a sanitizer spritz.

So Garibay suggests you stick to washing your hands if you’re around someone with those kinds of symptoms. Additionally, hand sanitizer isn’t really effective if your hands are visibly dirty. Sanitizing your hands at that point is just spreading the bad stuff around, according to Garibay, so just make a point to wash your hands properly.

When you’re visiting someone else in the hospital, follow this simple procedure to keep them on the road to good health:

  • If you know you’re sick, don’t visit them all.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands before going into their room.
  • Follow any isolation precautions ordered by their physician.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands when you leave.

Doctor’s follow these sanitization steps themselves, so it’s a good habit to emulate. If you are sick yourself and can’t visit your loved ones, consider talking to them on the phone or even comforting them with a video chat. It can be hard to keep away from someone you care about in their time of need, but your little head cold could mean a lot more trouble for them in the long run.

It’s true that there are plenty of things to worry about in a hospital, but as Nurse Garibay points out, a little hand hygiene goes a long way towards prevention; both for you as a visitor and for others as patients.…


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