How Are Bloodborne Pathogens Spread?

The U.S. National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health provides a comprehensive and succinct definition of bloodborne pathogen:

A pathogen is something that causes disease. Germs that can cause long-lasting infection in human blood and disease in humans are called bloodborne pathogens.

In order to protect your health, and the health of others, you need to understand how bloodborne pathogens are spread.

Mechanisms of Spreading Bloodborne Pathogens

Bloodborne pathogens spread in one of four primary ways:

  • Direct contact: Infected blood, or other bodily fluid, transfers directly from one person to another. For example, blood splashes from a person infected with a pathogen into the mouth of another individual. Sexual contact is another example of a mechanism for spreading certain bloodborne pathogens.
  • Indirect contact: A person touches an object that contains contaminated blood. For example, when cleaning up a blood spill, contaminated blood transfers to that individual through an open cut.
  • Respiratory droplet transmission: Infected blood is inhaled. This occurs when an infected person coughs or sneezes, transmitting droplets of contaminated blood in the process.
  • Vector-borne transmission: Infected blood enters a person’s system via penetration by an infected source. This can occur via an insect bite.

Universal Precautions for Contact with Blood

Understanding how bloodborne pathogens are spread is crucial. With this knowledge, you must appreciate the steps that must be taken to prevent the transmission of bloodborne pathogens.

In the midst of the AIDS pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed what has become known as universal precautions for dealing with contact with blood. The protocols apply to any type of contact with any blood. This includes blood known to be contaminated with some type of bacteria or virus as well as blood that is thought to be contagion free.

The CDC provides comprehensive information on all aspects of preventing the spread of bloodborne pathogens. The American Red Cross has distilled this information into its essential elements:

  • Always avoid contact with blood and other bodily fluids
  • Wear mask when cleaning up blood and bodily fluids (or use CPR breathing barriers when providing rescue breaths)
  • Wear goggles or other eye protection when facing contact with blood or other bodily fluids
  • Wear disposable apron or gown when in contact with blood or bodily fluids
  • Wear disposable gloves when cleaning up blood and bodily fluids (or when you have contact with blood or bodily fluids during a rescue)
  • Remove all jewelry, including rings, before putting on disposable gloves
  • Cover any of your cuts, sores, or scrapes
  • Remove and replace disposable gloves after each use
  • Properly dispose of all disposal personal protective equipment
  • Properly sanitize all non-disposable personal protective equipment
  • Thoroughly wash your hands after engaged in blood or bodily fluid cleanup, or having contact with them during a rescue

Most Common Types of Bloodborne Pathogens

There are a significant number of bloodborne pathogens that are transmitted in the manner previously described. In addition, the same defensive protocols exist to prevent the spread or transmission of any bloodborne pathogen. With that said, there are four infections that represent the most common types of bloodborne pathogens in the United States. These are:

  • HIV
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
  • MRSA

HIV is the virus that can lead to the AID infection. Hepatitis B and C are viruses that cause liver infection. There is a vaccination for Hepatitis B. Hepatitis C is the most common chronic bloodborne infection among residents of the United States.

MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This is an infection that results from a strain of staph bacteria that is resistant to a variety of different types of antibiotics. There are people who carry the MRSA infection and show no signs of it. They can unknowingly transfer the infection to other individuals.

What to do if Exposed to Blood

Even if follow universal standards and utilize personal protective equipment, you might end up exposed to blood, other bodily fluids, or biological materials. You may not truly know whether or not blood or other bio materials are contaminated in any way. Therefore, you need to respond as if the material is contaminated.

The first step to take is to thoroughly wash the point of contact, if possible. This includes washing the area of skin where an exposure occurred or flushing the eyes for 20 minutes of that is the point of contact. If blood or bodily fluid entered the mouth, rinsing the mouth using peroxide is a recommended tactic.

The second step is to seek immediate medical attention. There are some steps that can be taken in some instances to reduce the risk of infection by a bloodborne pathogen if immediate medical intervention is obtained.

The American Red Cross offers detailed information on what to do if you are exposed to blood, bodily fluids, or other biological material.