Standard Precautions

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

Standard Precautions are the basic steps used to stop the spread of pathogens (organisms that can cause disease). Standard Precautions should be used by all healthcare providers with every patient, in all patient care settings. As a patient, there may be times that you need to be your own advocate and remind your health care provider to follow standard precautions to protect yourself and other patients.

Standard Precautions include:

  • Hand Hygiene (Handwashing): Hand hygiene is the most important way to prevent the spread of infections. Proper hand hygiene can be done using an alcohol-based hand gel or foam or by using soap and water. If you can see dirt on your hands, you should wash with soap and water. Your health care provider should do hand hygiene when entering and exiting the patient care area (exam room, hospital room, chemotherapy administration room), before and after touching you, and after removal of gloves. Although you are not the healthcare provider, it is important that you, as the patient (or your visitors), perform hand hygiene often to prevent the spread of pathogens.
  • Respiratory Hygiene: Respiratory hygiene is used to prevent the spread of pathogens that can cause respiratory infections. Respiratory hygiene is covering your nose and mouth while sneezing and coughing, with either your elbow or a tissue. If you use a tissue, it should then be thrown away in the trash. After covering your cough or sneeze with you elbow or tissue, hand hygiene should be done.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): PPE is the equipment worn by health care professionals to protect them from contact with infectious agents. PPE prevents the spread of possible pathogens from patient to patient. PPE includes gloves, face shields, surgical masks, goggles, respirator masks, and gowns. Your health care provider will put these on depending on the type of situation. Gloves should always be worn when there is the chance of hands touching bodily fluid from the patient. A gown, face shield, and goggles may be used if there is a chance that a bodily fluid could be splashed onto the health care provider. After taking off any PPE, proper hand hygiene should be done.
  • Injection Safety: Being stuck by a needle that has been used can transmit bloodborne pathogens from the patient to the healthcare provider. It is important that needles only be used once. Used needles must be thrown out right away into a container made for the disposal of syringes and needles. Many needles have a safety mechanism that pulls the needle into the syringe once the medication is given. This mechanism should always be used to prevent a health care provider from moving around a room with an open needle.
  • Medical Equipment/Environmental Cleaning/Waste Disposal: It is important that standards are set in every facility for the cleaning of equipment, linens, and patient care settings, including exam rooms and hospital rooms. Visibly soiled equipment and spaces should be properly cleaned with the correct chemical agent or detergent. One-time use equipment, such as probes placed on thermometers, should be thrown away after use. Linens should be changed after use in an exam room and as often as needed (at a minimum, daily) in a hospital room. Trash should be thrown away properly. Any trash soiled with bodily fluid should be thrown away in a trash can meant for clinical waste. Trash cans to be used for clinical waste will be marked and are often red.

If a patient has symptoms of certain infections, they may be placed on "isolation precautions." Types of isolation precautions include: 

  • Contact.
  • Droplet.
  • Airborne. 

Each type of precaution uses different protective equipment. A patient may be placed on one of these types of precautions until further testing can either rule out or confirm the infection. The types of isolation precautions are detailed below.

Contact Precautions

Contact precautions are used for patients with a potential or confirmed infection that is spread by direct or indirect contact with the patient or the patient’s environment. Contact precaution practices may differ between inpatient and outpatient facilities, depending on the guidelines at the center where you are being treated.

A patient placed on Contact Precautions should be moved to a private room. Health care providers and visitors will be taught to wear gloves and a gown for any interaction with the patient, including being in the patient’s hospital room. The gowns and gloves should be thrown away properly when leaving the room and followed by proper hand hygiene. When reentering the room, a clean gown and new gloves should be worn.

Some of the most common organisms requiring a patient to be placed on contact precautions are:

  • MRSA – Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
  • VRE – Vancomycin-resistant enterococci.
  • C. diff – Clostridium difficile (Hand hygiene must be performed with soap and water. C. diff is a spore that cannot be removed with use of an alcohol-based gel or foam).

Droplet Precautions

Droplet Precautions are used to prevent the spread of pathogens found in respiratory secretions (coughing, sneezing, talking) or by coming in contact with mucous membranes. The pathogens are not infectious over a long distance, so no special handling of the air is necessary. However, a private room is suggested, along with the use of a disposable mask by all visitors and health care providers. Upon exiting the room, the mask should be removed and thrown away, and proper hand hygiene should be done. If a patient is traveling outside of their room, they should wear a mask to prevent transmission of the infection or virus.

Some of the most common organisms requiring a patient to be placed on droplet precautions are:

  • Influenza (Flu). 
  • Viral Respiratory tract infections, including adenovirus, parainfluenza, rhinovirus, and RSV.
  • Pertussis.
  • Rubella.
  • Mumps.
  • Covid-19.

Airborne Precautions

Airborne precautions are used for patients who have an infection that remains infectious over long distances when in the air. Patients placed on airborne precautions will be moved to a negative pressure room. A negative pressure room has a ventilation system in which the air removed from the room is not introduced into the hallway or into any other rooms. The door to the room must be kept closed. This prevents the spread of pathogens that can remain in the air for long distances.

Before entering the room, all visitors and providers entering the room must put on a respirator mask, which you should be properly fitted for. The mask should be thrown out after leaving the room and proper hand hygiene should be done. Depending on where you are being treated, a gown and gloves may also have to be worn and then removed before leaving the room. The respirator mask should always be removed after exiting the room. Patients will be asked to wear a mask when traveling outside of the patient care room.

Some of the most common organisms requiring a patient to be placed on airborne precautions are:

  • Measles – Rubeola.
  • TB - Tuberculosis.
  • Herpes Zoster – Disseminated Shingles (Actively open skin sores. If the sores are crusted and healing, only contact precautions are required).

Prevention of the spread of pathogens is key to preventing infections. If you have any questions regarding standard precautions or isolation precautions, contact your nurse or care provider. Treatment centers may vary in practice.

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