Don’t touch that! Five surprisingly germ-covered hospital surfaces

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published November 14, 2018

Key Takeaways

Have you ever looked at a table, faucet, or item of clothing and wondered how many germs live on it? How about in a health-care setting? You’re not alone.

It turns out that there’s a corpus of research on the infectious nature of fomites (infection-harboring materials) in health-care settings. Although most of the studies are low power, you may never look at your clipboard, stethoscope, or tie in the same way again.

Here are five everyday fomites encountered in hospital settings:

Curtains: Canadian researchers discovered that patient privacy curtains found in hospital rooms become increasingly contaminated as days go by, according to results of a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

Curtains started to demonstrate increased microbial contamination vs controls by day 3, and by day 14, 87.5% of curtains harbored MRSA. The researchers suggested cleaning or switching curtains between 10 and 14 days.

Curtains make for concerning and under-recognized fomites for three reasons:

  • They are touched often.
  • They’re infrequently changed for clean curtains.
  • People don’t wash their hands after touching them.

Despite their findings, the researchers noted that no current standards exist for hospital hygiene, and suggested that hospitals be at least as clean as food-preparation environments.

Stethoscopes: Over time, physicians grow attached to their stethoscopes. But, like any part of the body, stethoscopes need to be cleaned.

Up to 32% of the bells and diaphragms of stethoscopes have been found to harbor MRSA, as well as Clostridium difficile, resistant gram-negative bacilli, and viruses. Research also shows that wiping off your stethoscope with an alcohol swab or disinfectant can reduce the bioburden, including MRSA contamination.

In other words, before visiting with a patient, it’s a good idea to squirt a bit of alcohol-based hand sanitizer on your trusty stethoscope, too. With some patients, it may also be good idea to have dedicated stethoscopes to prevent cross-contamination, a practice found in the ICU.

Tabletops: Epidemiologic evidence suggests that tabletops and other hospital surfaces that are frequently touched by patients and staff alike serve as important reservoirs for pathogens. These surfaces have been shown to harbor MRSA, vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), Acinetobacter baumanii,C. difficile, respiratory syncytial virus, and norovirus. Together, these hardy bugs are uniquely able to survive dessiccation in a viable, transmissible form for days or even months.

More recently, worries about surface contamination have led to beefed up surface decontamination practices in hospitals, including the use of bleach solutions, ultraviolet light, or aerosolization of hydrogen peroxide or peroxacetic acid.

Hospital linens: No matter how white they appear, hospital linens can also be a reservoir for bacteria and viruses.

C. difficile spores can survive commercial wash with industrial detergent and can potentially contribute to hospital outbreaks, according to a recent study published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

These researchers also found that contaminated bed sheets can spread pathogens to uncontaminated bed sheets, as well as spread germs between patients and hospitals.

Neckties: Yet another reason to forego the necktie: Studies have shown that neckties and other items of clothing quickly become contaminated with bugs such as MRSA and C. difficile.

Worries about clothing contamination have fueled a new policy in the UK National Health Service hospitals banning neckties and jackets. Health-care workers engaged in direct patient care are, instead, required to wear re-processable garments.

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