Infection Control & Prevention: What Nursing Students Should Know

Infection Control & Prevention: What Nursing Students Should Know

There’s a lot of information that you need to remember in nursing school, some more complex than others. One concept in particular that seems pretty simple but is incredibly important to get right is infection control and prevention.

Despite how simple it might be on the surface, facility-acquired infections still happen, and the spread of infection through staff and communities can be rapid and devastating. 

As you prepare to enter your career in health care, take the time now to learn best practices for infection control and prevention.

Infection Control Best Practices

As health care professionals, your duty is to do no harm. One way you can hold to that purpose is to prevent harm from infections that can have severe impacts on the lives of patients and the people around you.

Infections can have devastating effects on our patients. They may become either permanently or temporarily disabled. Bacterial infections can increase antibiotic resistance, making it more difficult to fight off the same infection in other people. Patients are more likely to spend time in a hospital or seeking medical care. They can even die.

During the nursing program, use every opportunity, whether in sim lab working with mannequins or in a clinical setting with real-life patients, to make infection control and prevention best practices a habit. 

Here are the best practices that you as a nursing student can start following now.

Make Handwashing a Habit

Unless you’ve been working in the health care field for a while and have developed the habit of washing your hands every time you touch something or leave a room, then start getting yourself in the habit now. 

Don’t be the person who doesn’t wash their hands after leaving the bathroom. Not only does it greatly increase the risk of spreading bacteria that can cause infection, but it’s also often against facility policies. 

Yes, we know there are health care professionals out there who don’t always follow this guideline. Don’t be one of them.

This is a habit you should carry throughout your life, whether at home or at work. It’s the most effective way to prevent the spread of infection and disease and your strongest best practice.

Know When to Use Hand Sanitizer vs. Soap And Water

Speaking of handwashing, do you know when hand sanitizer is appropriate to use versus soap and water and vice versa?

Hand sanitizer is very useful when you don’t have a sink around every corner nor the time to use one. But there are some instances when hand sanitizer won’t cut it, and as you go through clinicals and classes, now’s the time to learn when those situations apply.

You’re best to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer whenever you:

  • Enter or leave a patient’s room
  • Touch a patient (both before and after)
  • Touch anything in the environment around the patient (before and after)
  • Move from working on one part of a patient’s body to another
  • Handle any invasive medical devices
  • Perform an aseptic task or invasive procedure
  • Remove your gloves
  • Come in contact with any contaminated surfaces.

However, these are the times when you need to find a sink and use soap and water:

  • Your hands are visibility dirty
  • You just finished caring for a patient with a known or suspected diagnosis of infectious diarrhea
  • You were exposed to suspected or confirmed spores from an infection like C. difficile
  • You’re just finished using the restroom
  • You’re about to eat something.

Once washing your hands with soap and water is a habit for you, get used to using hand sanitizer before and after caring for patients or touching surfaces and equipment. Infection-causing organisms can live for hours or days on surfaces, and you don’t want to spread those around.

Treat Dry Hands Early

If you live in a dry climate or a place that gets cold winters, you’ll especially notice that your hands will often feel dried out and rough from all the handwashing and hand sanitizer use. The soaps that facilities use are very strong and can damage hands over extended use.

When the skin on your hands starts to dry, it can get irritated, start cracking, and even start bleeding. If you haven’t experienced it yet, it’s not pleasant, and it makes needing to wash or use hand sanitizer a very unpleasant experience.

That puts you at risk for spreading infection through your blood or through the avoidance of hand hygiene as well as puts you at risk for getting infected through the open skin on your hands. None of those options are good.

Be prepared for dry skin that comes from hand hygiene. Many facilities will have lotion that they’ve approved for use by staff. It’s normally unscented to avoid irritating staff or patients, and it has ingredients that won’t reduce the effect of hand sanitizer, like other common lotions from the grocery store might do.

Make sure your hands stay well moisturized at work and at home. Don’t let them get so damaged that you start to avoid hand hygiene. 

Remember the Importance of a Clean Environment

As mentioned before, some disease-causing germs and bacteria can live on surfaces for a long time. That’s good news for them but bad news for us and our patients.

COVID-19 can live for hours to even days on certain surfaces at the right temperature. The flu virus can live on hard surfaces for up to three days and still cause the flu if it’s picked up by a host. C. difficile spores, meanwhile, can survive for up to five months on hard surfaces.

Be aware of the environment around you and your patients. Even if something doesn’t look visibly dirty, you won’t be able to see the germs that are living on the surface, waiting for an opening to infect someone.

Use facility-approved cleaning agents to wipe down surfaces as you go, following your facility’s cleaning policies and procedures. Don’t assume a surface is clean just because it looks clean, and be wary of touching or setting items down on high-traffic areas, like tables in public areas or hand railings.

If you’re changing or handling linens, be careful not to let them touch your clothes. Some organisms survive just fine on cloth and can transfer from the linens to your scrubs and go on to infect you or someone else.

Keep A Mindset of Prevention vs. Intervention

Thankfully, we live in a time when there are many advances and options for treating many infections and diseases. But if we can prevent those health issues in the first place, that not only saves time and resources, it also prevents further health problems that might happen as a result of the issue as well as the stress patients go through.

In everything you do, train your brain to be in the mindset of prevention. Don’t wait until there’s a problem or one that’s already there gets worse and needs some sort of intervention, like antibiotics, surgery, or a longer hospital stay. 

Take Responsibility

As health care workers, everything we do at work or at home contributes to infection control and prevention. Health habits at home translate to safe habits at work. Keeping ourselves healthy and active helps prevent and fight off diseases that we might pick up from patients or family members.

A lot of times, we health care professionals just get so busy that we sometimes forget that we have to take care of our health, too. But if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we’re opening ourselves up to weakened immune systems or lax vigilance in following preventative measures due to tiredness or unmanaged stress.

Practice self-care. Get enough sleep, drink enough water, and make sure you’re eating. Take responsibility for your own health.

Some Final Best Practices for Infection Control

Infection control and prevention is a complex process and a state of mind that takes time to develop and improve. There’s so much that can be said about this topic, so here are a few more best practices that you can work into your infection prevention training as you go: 

  • Use your personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriately
  • Be careful handling sharp instruments and be mindful in preventing accidental needlestick injuries
  • Approach each patient and each situation with an eye for assessing the risk of infection.

Health care is a never-ending war against infectious agents we usually don’t see until they’ve already affected us or our patients. It can be overwhelming, especially for those new to the field. But you can start now during school to arm yourself with the mindset and the best habits to help prevent and control infection. 

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.

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