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Prevention of Infection

by Allan R. Tunkel, MD, PhD

Several measures help protect people against infection. Hand washing is an effective way of preventing the spread of infectious microorganisms from one person to another. Hand washing is particularly important for people who handle food or who have frequent physical contact with other people. People visiting hospital patients who are seriously ill should wash their hands and may be asked put on a gown, mask, and gloves before entering the patient’s room. Many hospitals also provide sanitizing gels or foams that contain alcohol. Using these agents on the hands before touching patients can help prevent the spread of infection. Antibacterial soaps are widely available but have not been shown to reduce infection rates.

Sometimes, to prevent an infection, antibiotics are given to people who do not yet have an infection. This preventive measure is called prophylaxis. Many healthy people who undergo certain types of surgery—particularly abdominal surgery and organ transplantation—require prophylactic antibiotics.

Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent infections (see Overview of Immunization). People who are at increased risk of developing infections (especially infants, children, older people, and people with AIDS) should receive all the vaccinations necessary to reduce this risk.