Universal Precautions vs. Standard Precautions in Infection Control

Instructor: Justine Fritzel

Justine has been a Registered Nurse for 10 years and has a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree.

When working in healthcare, it is important to use precautions to prevent the spread of infection and to protect yourself from being infected. In this lesson, you'll learn the difference between universal precautions and standard precautions.

Infection Control Evolution

The year is 1900, and you are a nurse working at your local hospital. A young boy is brought into after falling out of a tree. He has a compound fracture of his tibia and there is blood everywhere. You rush to his gurney and begin to attend to the bleeding. No protective equipment is being used to handle the blood, in fact, protective equipment doesn't even exist at this time.

Fast forward to the year 2000. The same scenario plays out but it looks a lot different than our original scenario. Nurses have personal protective equipment (PPE) from head to toe. PPE includes the use of gloves, gowns, and face shields to protect the healthcare worker from being exposed to the blood from the fracture.

PPE includes gloves, gowns, and faceshields.

So what is the difference? Does the young boy in 2000 have an infectious disease that the healthcare workers know about? Does the boy in 1900 has a clean bill of health? Let's learn more about the history of infection control to understand the difference.

History of Universal Precautions in Healthcare

Historically, infectious diseases weren't clearly understood. It wasn't known how they were transmitted from one person to another. It was normal practice to care for patients without PPE. Hard to imagine in our current day!

In the 1980s, there began to be a greater understanding of the risks of bloodborne pathogens. Diseases can be spread from one infected individual to another through exposure to blood. Examples include HIV and hepatitis B. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) developed standards to prevent the spread of infectious diseases to healthcare workers.

Universal precautions were developed to guide the practice of hospital workers in caring for patients. Originally, precautions were put into place to be used when a patient was known to be infected with a disease that could be transmitted by bloodborne pathogens. For example, if a man with HIV came into the ER with bleeding, you would use gloves and face shields to protect yourself. Other precautions include handwashing and avoiding exposure to used needles or sharps. But if a man came into the ER with the same injury but no known disease, it would not be necessary to use PPE based on the original guidelines.

Proper disposal of sharps helps to prevent exposure to infectious diseases.
Sharps container

Soon after the original precautions were put into place, they were further advanced to treat all blood and body fluids as infectious, whether the patient was known to have a disease or not.

Migration to Standard Precautions in Healthcare

Times continue to change since the inception of universal precautions. There are more serious illnesses, viruses, pandemics and biological warfare that pose a threat for exposure.

In the 1990s, the CDC developed standard precautions. Standard precautions are the use of PPE for all patient care that exposes a healthcare worker to body fluids of any type in any setting - not just the hospital. All body substances should be treated as if they are infectious.

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