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Bad Bugs Common on Hospital Workers’ Clothes

The white coats, scrubs, and smocks of hospital doctors and nurses often look clean, but bad bugs may be hitching rides on their clothes, new research shows.

Sept. 2, 2011 -- The white coats, scrubs, and smocks of hospital doctors and nurses may look clean, but bad germs are hitching rides on their clothes, new research shows.

Uniforms worn by hospital personnel often are contaminated with the superbug MRSA and a variety of other bacteria, Israeli scientists report.

They swabbed white coats and uniforms worn by doctors and nurses and found potentially dangerous bacteria on more than 60% of items they examined.

Doctors’ uniforms were a little cleaner than nurses’, with 60% containing potentially dangerous bacteria, compared to 65% of what nurses wore.

MRSA Found on Uniforms

And the researchers say that antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found on 14% of nurses' and 6% of doctors' uniforms.

MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a particularly dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacterium, was found on eight of 238 samples of uniforms.

The findings suggest that many hospital patients come in close proximity to MRSA and other bacteria. The researchers note that the uniforms themselves may not present a direct risk of spreading disease.

“It is important to put these study results into perspective,” Russell Olmsted, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, says in a news release. “Any clothing that is worn by humans will become contaminated with microorganisms.”

He says the “cornerstone” of infection prevention continues to be hand hygiene, to prevent the movement of bugs from contaminated surfaces to patients.

Hygiene Matters

The researchers checked the sleeves, waists, and pockets of 75 registered nurses and 60 doctors at the 550-bed Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Among those checked, 58% said they changed uniforms daily. In addition, 77% of those sampled rated their uniforms as moderately clean to very clean.

The Israeli researchers, led by Shaare Zedek’s Yonit Wiener-Well, MD, found that the rate of contamination with antibiotic-resistant organisms was 29% on clothing changed every two days, compared to 8% on garb changed daily.

They recommend that health workers change uniforms daily, boost hand hygiene practices, and wear plastic aprons when contact with body fluids could occur.

Previous research has shown that the clothing of hospital workers, including watches, rings, and neckties, could harbor bacteria.

Bottom line: Keep hands clean.

The study appears in the September issue of the American Journal of Infection Control.

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