Hospital infections

Hospital-acquired infections (also known as healthcare associated infections) are complications that can occur as a result of medical treatment and are caused by micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses. Some of these micro-organisms can be found in the environment, and some live normally within the body. The types of hospital-acquired infections that are most commonly seen include those associated with a surgical wound or the insertion of medical devices such as an intravenous drip, urinary catheter or wound drain.

How hospitals work to prevent infection

In South Australian hospitals, healthcare workers maintain high infection control standards and participate in local and national programs to minimise the risk of infection. Healthcare facilities use a range of policies and procedures to reduce the risk of infection, including:

  • washing hands with soap or using alcohol-based hand rub
  • wearing protective equipment such as gloves, gowns, masks and eye shields
  • separating infectious patients from others, usually in a single room
  • disinfecting medical equipment between patient use
  • maintaining a clean environment.

More information on what SA Health is doing to prevent infection in healthcare settings can be found on the healthcare associated infection page for clinicians.

Despite these efforts, some patients will still be at greater risk than others of contracting an infection while in hospital. This is especially true for people who are seriously unwell with diseases that affect their body's ability to fight infection, such as those suffering burns or certain medical conditions such as cancer.

How you can reduce the risk of infection

There are several things you can do to help prevent the occurrence of an infection whilst in hospital:

  • always wash your hands after using the toilet or a commode
  • wash or clean your hands with a wipe before eating
  • do not be afraid to ask a healthcare worker if they have cleaned their hands
  • avoid touching a wound or inserted device (for example, drips or drainage tubes)
  • tell the healthcare worker looking after you if the area around any of the lines or tubes inserted into your body becomes red, swollen or painful
  • discourage visitors who are feeling unwell
  • stop smoking before any surgery as smoking increases the risk of infection.

More information on how you can prevent an infection while you are in hospital:

Multi-resistant organisms

All bacteria have the ability to become resistant to certain antibiotics. Multi-resistant organisms (often called "superbugs") are bacteria that have developed resistance to certain antibiotics that are usually used to treat infection.

Infections caused by these bacteria are usually more difficult to treat due to the reduced number of effective antibiotics available. Some infections may require treatment in hospital. Generally the most common multi-resistant organisms encountered in the healthcare setting are:

Sometimes a doctor may arrange for a person to have body washes and / or nasal ointment to reduce or eliminate the carriage of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This is called decolonisation treatment (PDF 109KB).

Multi-resistant organisms also have the potential to cause infections, this can occur when the organism enters the site of a medical device such as a urinary catheter or intravenous drip, operation site or wound. Information about how to reduce the risk of infection in healthcare and community settings.

Clostridium difficile infection (CDI)

Clostridium difficile (often abbreviated to “C. diff”) is a spore forming bacterium that can often be found in people’s intestines and the environment.However, it does not always cause disease and is present in up to 10% of health adults without causing symptoms.The trigger for infection is believed to be caused by disturbance of the normal bowel microflora during antibiotic treatment.

Medical device care

Medical devices, such as intravenous drips, urinary catheters and wound drains, can be associated with infections if not looked after properly, especially when you go home from hospital with a device in place.

A device that you may go home with is a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter (PICC). For information about how you can prevent infection if you go home with a PICC, read the following brochures and fact sheets:

Another type of device that may be necessary while you are in hospital is a Peripherally Intravenous Cannula (PIVC), also known as an intravenous (IV) drip. For further information about how you can help minimise the risk of infection of your IV drip while in hospital, please read the following consumer information:

How to reduce infection in the community

There are several things you can do to help prevent the occurrence of infections in the community setting. There are similar to those listed whilst being admitted to hospital; however the important ones are:

  • always wash your hands after using the toilet
  • wash your hands before preparing food and eating
  • wash your hands regularly whilst caring for babies or sick people.

For more information on how you can prevent infections in the community settings: