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Understand infections to protect yourself, lower risk for illnesses

Advance With MUSC Health
September 21, 2021
illustration of bacteria

COVID-19 has heightened our awareness of infectious diseases. Who among us hasn’t heard the 20-second hand-washing and mask-wearing recommendations to minimize our risk of contracting the airborne virus?

The reality is infections can originate from numerous sources: Microscopic organisms such as fungi, parasites, bacteria and viruses can enter our body, multiply and cause symptoms ranging from mild to deadly.

Bacterial illnesses include strep throat and urinary tract infections. Viruses, which are even tinier than bacteria, can cause AIDS, colds and respiratory illnesses, such as flu and COVID-19. Fungi can cause ringworm or infect the lungs and the nervous system.  

A cough, diarrhea, fever, chills, sore throat and muscle aches, burning or pain with urination and nasal congestion can be signs of infection. We talked with Adrienne Lorek, manager of Infection Prevention and Control for MUSC Health Charleston, and Dr. David Bundy, chief quality officer for MUSC Health Charleston, to learn more about infection, how we can lower our risk of getting sick, and what MUSC Health does to minimize infection risks.

David Bundy 
Dr. David Bundy

Q. How are infections spread?

A. Infections can be spread from animals to people, person-to-person and people to animals. Different germs spread in different ways. For example, Hepatitis A or salmonella can spread through contaminated food, but COVID-19 does not. In other words, not all germs can spread through all pathways. An open cut that develops into a staph infection such as MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant form of staph, can be spread through contact with another individual. That scenario is particularly worrisome because MRSA has become resistant to many antibiotics and can be deadly.  

Q. What are the simple things we can do to prevent illness?

A.  To avoid any type of infection, wash your hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer before you eat and after using the bathroom. Rub your hands vigorously because the friction is what gets residue off your hands. Make sure your sanitizer contains 70-percent alcohol. Avoid large crowds during flu season and wear a mask. If you’ve been prescribed an antibiotic, complete the full regimen, even when you start to feel better, to prevent the bacteria from becoming resistant to multiple drugs in the future. COVID-specific CDC guidelines include wearing a mask inside. In areas with high COVID-19 numbers, consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities involving close contact with people who are not fully vaccinated. And if you feel sick, stay home. Socially distancing yourself is good, but the farther apart you can be from someone, the better. That advice applies to any infectious illness.

Q. How important are vaccines?

A. Very important for protecting individuals and communities from deadly diseases such as polio, chickenpox, flu and whooping cough. COVID-19 vaccines are an example of the importance of getting vaccinated, as numbers show that the recent COVID-19 surge led to hospitalization or death primarily among the unvaccinated.

Q. What does MUSC Health do to protect patients and visitors?

A. The safety of our patients, visitors, employees, faculty, staff, students, volunteers and contract workers is our top priority. While COVID-19 cases are high, we continue to require masks inside and screen individuals entering our buildings for symptoms. We also encourage constant hand hygiene for staff and visitors, and we require the COVID-19 vaccine for our staff.

Q. What additional steps does MUSC Health take to protect patients, visitors and clinical staff?

A. At MUSC, we’re primarily concerned with person-to-person infections. When patients are admitted, our medical team tests them for contagious illnesses, such as COVID-19, flu and MRSA. Our electronic reporting system also includes protocols for handling specific infections, so if contagious illnesses are detected, our medical team takes the appropriate precautions to isolate and treat the patient. We also manage the patient’s immediate environment by controlling the air flow and requiring anyone entering the room to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gowns, gloves or face shields.

Q. What does MUSC Health to keep a patient’s environment clean?

A. Keeping the hospital environment clean is essential for providing quality care and keeping our patients safe. Everything we do is about reducing infection for patients. We recognize that the patients who are undergoing complex procedures and have more catheters and IV lines are at increased risk for infections. We spend a lot of time and effort minimizing their risk. We have prevention bundles for urinary tract infections, pneumonias and bloodstream infections. Our teams wipe down surfaces daily or during each shift. We keep surfaces clear of unnecessary items, and we routinely check any devices to be sure they are intact, dry, and clear of any build-up of dried blood or other debris. We also make rounds and inspect the pharmacy to check that drugs are being compounded appropriately, and we make rounds of our facilities to monitor for any debris or dust.

Q. What about needles and injections?

A. We follow the one needle, one patient, one time rule.

Q. What can I do to minimize infection risk if I or my loved one is in the hospital?

A. Practice good hand hygiene and be sure your providers are washing their hands when they enter and leave your room; be your own advocate or be your loved one’s advocate and ask questions about medication dosage; ask to have your room and equipment cleaned thoroughly. If you have a catheter, ask if it is still needed; follow pre-surgery instructions precisely and ask if you should bathe with a germ-killing soap before the procedure. Talk with your provider about vaccines.

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Advance With MUSC Health

Keywords: Infectious Diseases, COVID-19