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The Surprising Dangers of Hospital Stays

6 ways to reduce your risk of deadly infections while you're admitted

By Bob Rosenblatt

(This article originally appeared on

The hospital can be a dangerous place. You go to get healed, but there is a significant risk you can get sick from a germ you pick up there.

“Although there has been some progress, today and every day more than 200 Americans with healthcare-associated infections will die during their hospital stay,” says Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Tom Frieden, in announcing last month's report on infections.

“The most advanced medical care won’t work if clinicians don’t prevent infections through basic things such as regular hand hygiene,” Frieden says. “Healthcare workers want the best for their patients; following standard infection control practices every time will help ensure their patients’ safety.”

(MORE: How to Stay Safe in the Hospital)

The Grim Numbers From the CDC

In 2011, there were 722,000 healthcare-associated infections in U.S. hospitals. That means the patients didn’t come in with these infections — they got them while being treated there. About 75,000 patients died from these infections.

Lots of patients get sick from hospital infections, not just those who came in with severe health problems. In fact, more than half the infections happened outside the intensive care units at the hospitals.

Here are six tips from the CDC on how patients can avoid getting an infection in the hospital:

(MORE: 4 Handy Apps for Your Doctor Appointments)

Ways to Be a Safe Patient

1. Speak up. Talk to your doctor about all questions or worries you have. Find out what the hospital is doing to protect you. If you have a catheter, ask each day if it is necessary. Inquire of your doctor how he or she prevents surgical site infections. Also, learn how you can prepare for surgery to reduce your infection risk.

(MORE: 5 Ways to Make Your Doctor Your Partner)


2. Insist on clean hands. Be sure everyone in the hospital cleans their hands before touching you.

3. Get smart about antibiotics. Ask if tests will be done to make sure the right antibiotic is prescribed.

4. Know the signs and symptoms of infection. Some skin infections, such as MRSA, appear as redness, pain or drainage at an IV catheter site or surgery site. Often, these symptoms come with a fever. Tell your doctor if you have these symptoms.

5. Watch out for deadly diarrhea (aka C. difficile). Tell your doctor if you have three or more diarrhea episodes in 24 hours, especially if you have been taking an antibiotic.

6. Protect yourself. Get vaccinated against flu and other infections to avoid complications.

And here is more good advice from the National Patient Safety Foundation:

  • If you have diabetes, be sure that you and your doctor discuss the best way to control your blood sugar before, during and after your hospital stay. High blood sugar increases the risk of infection noticeably.
  • If you are overweight, losing weight will reduce the risk of infection following surgery.
  • If you are a smoker, consider starting a smoking cessation program before your hospital stay. This will reduce the chance of developing a lung infection while in the hospital and may also improve your healing abilities following surgery.
  • Carefully follow your doctors instructions regarding breathing treatments and getting out of bed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, advice or sufficient pain medications.
  • If possible, ask your friends and relatives not to visit you in the hospital if they feel ill.

Bob Rosenblatt is a researcher, writer and journalist, specializing in finances and aging. 

Bob Rosenblatt is a writer and editor specializing in aging issues. His blog, Help With Aging, focuses on the finances of aging. He was a Washington correspondent for The Los Angeles Times for 26 years. Read More
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