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Cleaning removes dust, dirt, and germs from surfaces and objects. Disinfection makes sure that as many germs as possible are destroyed or killed.
Cleaning and disinfection are both important infection control actions in hospitals and other healthcare settings because they keep germs away from people and help keep germs from spreading.
Seems like common sense, right?
“Even though it’s common sense, it’s important to think through all the reasons why we’re so careful about keeping an environment clean,” said Dr. Abigail Carlson, an infectious diseases physician with the CDC, as part of CDC Project Firstline’s Inside Infection Control video series.
The Importance of Cleaning and Disinfection: The Immune System
When we are healthy, our bodies have many built-in ways to protect us from infections.
An example is the barrier provided by healthy skin, which protects our immune system from external factors, such as bacteria.
But in healthcare, many patients are ill and weak.
“Germs are more likely to cause problems in these patients because their immune defenses might not be the same as somebody who’s healthy and living at home,” Dr. Carlson said.
Some patients might be especially vulnerable to infection.
They might have burns or wounds. They may be having a procedure done, like a surgical incision, where germs could get under their skin.
Patients can also be vulnerable to infection in ways that aren’t so obvious.
“A lot of patients have things going on that you can’t really see, like if their immune system is weak because of the medication for their cancer treatment,” Dr. Carlson said.
The Importance of Cleaning and Disinfection: High-Touch Surfaces
When a patient leaves a room or is discharged, the room should be cleaned and disinfected to make sure that the next patient is protected from the previous patient’s germs.
Additionally, surfaces and objects that are touched often, such as bed rails, keyboards, and light switches, need to be cleaned and disinfected frequently.
“We call these ‘high-touch surfaces’ and they need more frequent cleaning and disinfection because of all the hands that get on them,” Dr. Carlson said. “We know that if these germs get on our hands, then they can get all over the place, and that can make people sick.”
It’s also important to clean and disinfect things in healthcare that aren’t touched or shared as often but tend to be dirty and have a lot of germs on them, like toilets or a patient’s mattress.
The Importance of Cleaning and Disinfection: Antibiotic Resistance
Cleaning and disinfection in healthcare are also an important part of preventing antibiotic resistant germs.
“A lot of the germs that we’re seeing in healthcare are unfortunately becoming more resistant to antibiotics,” said Dr. Carlson. “That means that if somebody gets sick because of these germs, the antibiotics that we use to treat them, might be less likely to work and less likely to help that person get better.”
Preventing antibiotic resistance through cleaning and disinfection benefits both patients and healthcare workers.
“These outbreaks aren’t just in patients; healthcare workers have gotten sick too,” Dr. Carlson said. “So, we really want to get rid of those antibiotic-resistant germs in our environment.”
The Importance of Cleaning and Disinfection: Following Directions
You can usually tell if you’ve gotten rid of dirt and other messes during cleaning just by looking.
However, you can’t tell that disinfection has worked by looking because germs are too small to see.
Therefore, it is important to follow the instructions on disinfecting products to make sure you’re using them correctly. Pay special attention to disinfecting product contact times or dwell times, which is how long the chemical needs to sit on a surface before being wiped away in order to do its job: killing germs.
“There is more to cleaning and disinfection than just not being dirty,” Dr. Carlson said. “And you can see how important it is to have an environment that’s as free of germs as possible. “
What Can You Do to Promote Infection Control in Your Healthcare Setting?
Access more information about infection prevention and control in healthcare by visiting resources from CDC Project Firstline.
Project Firstline creates resources, including videos and shareable images, web buttons, posters, and print materials. They also have facilitator toolkits to help workers lead trainings even if they are not an infection control expert.
Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is working with the National Hispanic Medical Association to bring Project Firstline infection control educational content to healthcare workers, so they are equipped with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, their facilities, and their patients (Latinos and all communities) from infectious disease threats in healthcare settings.
You can read these articles:
- What is Project Firstline?
- What is a Virus?
- What is the Goal of Infection Control in Healthcare Settings?
- How Does Infection Control Work on COVID-19 Variants Like Omicron?
- The Intersection of Infection Prevention and Control and Healthcare Equity
- Contact Time: What is It and How Does it Impact Infection Control?
- We Need to Talk about Hand Hygiene Again
- The Surprising Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfection
“Healthcare teams in hospitals, nursing homes, and other care settings are the front lines against the spread of infection,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio. “CDC’s Project Firstline is bolstering those efforts by developing evidence-based tools that can be delivered in a variety of ways to make infection control learning convenient and accessible for busy healthcare staff.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America!, the National Hispanic Medical Association, and the CDC’s Project Firstline. To find resources training materials, and other tools to bolster knowledge and practice of infection control, visit Project Firstline and view Salud America!’s infection control content.