The Basics: Overview
You can help protect yourself from infections when you get medical care. This is especially important when you have a medical procedure, like surgery or dialysis.
Take these steps to help prevent infections when you have a medical procedure:
- Talk with your doctor or nurse about infections.
- Make sure your doctors, nurses, and visitors always wash their hands.
- Follow the instructions for preventing infections after your procedure.
How do medical procedures put people at risk for infections?
Germs can spread from one patient to another or from doctors and nurses to patients. You are at greater risk from germs that can cause infections if you have:
- An open wound (cut) after surgery
- An IV (intravenous) tube
- A catheter (tube in your vein or bladder)
- A ventilator (breathing tube)
The good news is that patients and doctors can work together to prevent the spread of germs and the infections they cause. Learn more about preventing infections at the hospital.
The Basics: Types of Infections
What types of infections can people get from medical procedures?
Infections people get from visiting a hospital, health clinic, doctor’s office, or other health care facility are called health care-associated infections (HAIs).
These infections can lead to sickness and even death. Blood infections and urinary tract infections from catheters are examples of HAIs.
Get tips to help prevent these common HAIs:
The Basics: Signs of Infection
How will I know if I have an infection?
Common signs that you may have an infection include:
- Burning or pain below the stomach (the lower abdomen)
- Burning when peeing (urinating) or having to pee more often than usual
- Redness or pain around a catheter or wound
- Pus or other liquid coming from the skin
- Diarrhea (frequent, watery poop)
Take Action: Talk with the Doctor
You and your doctor or nurse can work together to prevent infections by following these steps.
Talk with your doctor about preventing infections.
Before having surgery or getting another type of medical procedure, talk with your doctor or nurse about:
- Any medical problems you have, like diabetes
- What will be done before the procedure to help prevent an infection, like cleaning the skin with soap
- What you can do to help protect yourself from an infection after the procedure
Start the conversation by saying, “I know how easy it is for people to get infections. I don’t want it to happen to me.”
Speak up if something doesn’t seem right.
Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions before or after your procedure. For example, if your bandages aren’t clean, dry, or attached well, point this out to the doctor or nurse. Your safety is their priority.
After your procedure, pay close attention to changes in your health. If you get home and start to feel sick or notice signs of an infection, call your doctor or nurse right away.
Take Action: Hand Washing
Always make sure your doctors and nurses wash their hands.
Politely ask your doctors and nurses if they washed their hands. This is one of the most important ways to prevent infections. Even if they wear gloves, they still need to wash their hands before putting them on – just wearing gloves is not enough to prevent infections.
If you feel uncomfortable asking the doctors or nurses if their hands are clean, remember that it’s their job to help keep you safe and healthy.
For more information, check out this patient’s guide to hand hygiene [PDF - 1 MB].
Ask your visitors to wash their hands, too.
Make sure your family members and friends wash their hands when they visit you. And if a loved one isn’t feeling well, ask him or her to call you instead of visiting in person.
Take Action: Follow Instructions
Take steps to prevent infections after a procedure.
- Wash your hands often, especially after you’ve had surgery. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom and before eating.
- Follow the instructions you get for what to do after a medical procedure.
- Always wash your hands before touching a wound or catheter.
- If you have a catheter, ask every day if it's time for the catheter to be removed.
- Be sure to keep any follow-up appointments.
Use medicines safely.
You may need to take antibiotics or other medicines after the procedure. Be sure to follow the instructions on when, how often, and how long you need to take your medicines.
If you are taking antibiotics:
- Take all doses of the antibiotic unless your doctor tells you to stop.
- Never share antibiotics with others.
- Safely get rid of any antibiotics that you don't use.
- Tell your doctor or nurse if you start having diarrhea.
Call your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist right away if you have any questions about your medicine – or if you are worried that your medicine is making you feel worse.
Take Action: Other Tips
Stay up to date on your shots.
Ask your doctor about important shots (vaccines) to protect you from infections.
Protect yourself from seasonal flu.
Everyone age 6 months and older needs to get a flu vaccine every year.
Quit smoking. Patients who smoke get more infections. Talk to your doctor about how you can quit before your surgery. If you smoke, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) to make your quit plan. Get more ideas for quitting smoking.
Content last updated October 15, 2020
This information on health care-associated infections was adapted from materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Division of Health Care Quality in the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Joyce Yu, Pharm.D.
Health Care Quality Fellow (ORISE)
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)