Understanding the Different Types of Blood Exposure and Their Risks

September 20, 2016

Significant strides have been made in recent years regarding the treatment of blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis, but those who work in close proximity with bodily fluids are still at risk of contracting these illnesses should they be exposed to another's blood.

Doctors, nurses, dentists and dental assistants are at risk of blood exposure - either from a sharps injury or from spatters - but there are steps that can be taken to prevent the spread of infections.

However, it is still important for all medical professionals to understand the risks associated with blood exposure to pathogens to ensure they know what to do should their bloodstream be put at risk of contracting a potentially life-threatening infection.

Here, we take a look at how both sharps injury exposure and blood spatter exposure can occur and how they can be prevented, as well as exploring the risks associated with each.

Sharps injury exposure

Back in April 2003, the National Audit Office in the UK published a report that revealed sharps and needlestick injuries were the second most common types of accident affecting NHS staff at work, accounting for 17 per cent of all workplace injuries, behind only moving and handling incidents, which came in at 18 per cent.

A sharps injury occurs when a needle being used in surgery or for an injection accidentally pierces the skin of the person administering the vaccine, potentially exposing their own bloodstream to the patient's blood. Therefore, if a virus such as hepatitis C or HIV is present in the patient's body, the medical professional is also placed at risk of contracting this virus.

Blood exposure via sharps can also occur when adequate hygiene standards are not adhered to and needles are used for more than one patient. Although this is illegal in many countries, in some parts of the world blood contamination does still occur in this way, when pathogens from one patient are left on a needle and injected into another individual.

Additionally, if the person administering the injection is not wearing sterile protective gloves before vaccinating each patient, they risk pricking their own finger and exposing their bloodstream to potential infections.

There are ways to reduce the risk of infections from needlestick injuries, however, with sharps safety caps easily available to the healthcare industry, while simply following official hygiene guidelines can also help.

Risks associated with sharps injuries

If the person whose skin has been pricked by a sharps implement follows these steps immediately after piercing occurs, the risk of an infection being spread should be minimal:

  • Let the wound bleed out away from other people. Do not wipe it, suck it or scrub it.
  • Once the bleeding has stopped, wash the wound under a running tap, using plenty of soap. Take care to not scrub it at any time.
  • Report the sharps injury immediately to a shift manager or occupational health representative and seek medical advice.

In cases where these steps are not adhered to, the risk of blood-borne pathogens spreading is significantly higher and can potentially lead to the spread of life-changing or even life-threatening diseases, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.

Exposure from blood spatters

In a medical environment, there is also a high risk of blood spattering from a patient's wound during an operation - whether it be heart surgery or a more minor tooth extraction - into sensitive areas of doctors' or dentists' bodies. For example, the eyes, mouth and any wounds a healthcare worker has are at risk of exposure.

While mouths can be covered with surgical masks and all wounds should be properly bandaged, the eyes need to be exposed in most cases, although in particularly high-risk surgeries, protective goggles or eye shields can be worn.

What's more, it is not just blood from an infected patient that can spatter on to a medic and put them at risk, but other bodily fluids too, such as amniotic fluid in the delivery room, breast milk, vaginal secretions, semen, saliva or spinal fluid.

The potential risks of blood spatters

Blood or indeed other bodily fluid spatters can expose the bloodstream to pathogens associated with viruses in the same way that sharps injuries can.

Again, it is vital that the affected area is washed thoroughly and that the incident is reported as early on as possible in order for the best preventative treatments to begin. The person who has been exposed will need to undergo testing for signs of HIV or the hepatitis virus, which may need to continue for several months depending on the severity of the case.

Following this, if they are given the all-clear, they will be able to return to their normal duties, but if they are found to have a high presence of certain pathogens in their blood as a result of the exposure, extra precautions will need to be taken, potentially for their rest of their lives.

Therefore, this highlights the importance of following the recommended precautions to prevent the blood being exposed to potentially dangerous pathogens at any time.