A pathogen is something that causes disease. Germs that live in human blood and can cause disease in humans are called bloodborne pathogens.
The most common and dangerous germs spread through blood in the hospital are:
Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). These viruses cause infections and liver damage.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). This virus causes AIDS.
You can be infected with HBV, HCV, or HIV if you are stuck with a needle or other sharp object that has touched the blood or bodily fluids of a person who has one of these infections.
These infections can also spread if infected blood or bloody bodily fluids touch mucous membranes or an open sore or cut. Mucous membranes are the moist parts of your body, such as in your eyes, nose, and mouth.
HIV can also spread from one person to another through fluid in your joints or spinal fluid. And it can spread through semen, fluids in the vagina, breast milk, and amniotic fluid (the fluid that surrounds a baby in the womb).
More about hepatitis and HIV infections
Symptoms of hepatitis B and hepatitis C may be mild, and not start until 2 weeks to 6 months after contact with the virus. Sometimes, there are no symptoms.
Hepatitis B often gets better on its own and does not need to be treated. Some people develop a long-term infection that leads to liver damage.
Most people who become infected with hepatitis C develop a long-term infection. After many years, they often have liver damage.
After someone is infected with HIV, the virus stays in the body. It slowly harms or destroys the immune system. Your immune system fights disease and helps you heal. When it is weakened by HIV, you are more likely to get sick from other infections, including ones that would not normally cause you to be sick.
Treatment can help people with all of these infections.
Hepatitis B can be prevented by a vaccine. But there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C or HIV.
What to do if you are exposed
If you are stuck with a needle, get blood in your eye, or are exposed to any bloodborne pathogen:
Wash the area. Use soap and water on your skin. If your eye is exposed, use running water only.
Tell your supervisor right away that you were exposed.
Get medical help right away.
You may or may not need lab tests, a vaccine, or medicines.
Preventing hepatitis and HIV infections in the hospital
Isolation precautions create barriers between people and germs. They help prevent the spread of germs in the hospital.
Follow standard precautions with all patients.
When you are near or are handling blood, bodily fluids, body tissues, mucous membranes, or areas of open skin, you must use personal protective equipment (PPE). Depending on the exposure, you may need:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Infectious Diseases, division of Healthcare Quality Promotion and Division of Viral Hepatitis. Exposure to blood: what healthcare personnel need to know. Updated July 2003. http://www.cdc.gov/HAI/pdfs/bbp/Exp_to_Blood.pdf. Accessed February 21, 2014.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA fact sheet: OSHA's bloodborne pathogens standard. Updated January 2011. https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_BloodborneFacts/bbfact01.pdf. Accessed February 21, 2014.
Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.