Patients go to a hospital to get better, not to get an additional infection that makes them sicker or even kills them. Yet every day more than 200 Americans will die from an infection they developed during their hospital stay, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And although the CDC's newest data show some improvement in the number of these hospital-acquired infections, they are still a major problem. According to the government's survey of 183 hospitals in 2011, published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1 in 25 patients got one or more infections while they were in the hospital, adding up to nearly 722,000 infections and about 75,000 deaths a year - about 1 in every 9 infected patients.
Infections stemming from inserted devices, like catheters and breathing tubes, accounted for about a quarter of cases, but pneumonia, surgical-site infections and gastrointestinal illnesses together caused more than 60 percent. The most common bacterial culprit? Clostridium difficile (often called C. diff), which can cause fatal diarrhea. C.diff resulted in about 12 percent of all hospital-acquired illnesses and 71 percent of gastrointestinal infections in particular, the study found.
The CDC also found that these infections typically occur soon after admission - the average was six days - and progress rapidly. "You think you have a trivial infection of the bladder, and the next thing, you're fighting for your life," Michael Bell, M.D., deputy director of the division of health care quality promotion at the CDC, said in a news conference.
Although the causes for these infections can include improperly sterilized equipment and overuse of antibiotics, a major cause is simply not washing hands enough. "The most advanced medical care won't work if clinicians don't prevent infections through basic things such as regular hand hygiene," CDC director Tom Frieden, M.D., told reporters.
Linda Greene, a registered nurse and an expert in infection prevention with the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), says it often comes down to patients, or their loved ones, insisting that health care workers wash their hands before administering care.
"Sometimes it can be tough," she told AARP, but "you need to ask questions like 'Have you cleaned your hands?'"
Don't be shy. If you haven't seen health care workers clean their hands, ask them to do so. Also ask a patient's visitors to clean their hands. Make sure your own hands are cleaned after using the bathroom, sneezing or coughing, or eating.
Raise the head of the bed. It can help a patient swallow more easily and prevent particles of food from being accidentally inhaled, a cause of lung problems.
Get a pneumonia vaccine. It helps protect against infection before a hospital stay. The vaccine is recommended for those 65 or older, as well as for those with a chronic illness, weakened immune system or who live in a nursing facility.
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