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Monday, May 25, 2020
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Even “Clean” Hospital Sheets Carry Potentially Deadly Bacteria

When it comes time to protecting patients — and staffers — from hospital-acquired infections, there may be one potential source of bacteria you would never suspect: clean sheets. It seems that the high temperatures and industrial detergents used in commercial laundries aren’t powerful enough to get hospital sheets free of spores from Clostridium difficile, the bacteria that can cause serious and dangerous nosocomial diarrhea infections. In fact, the inability to completely eliminate C. difficile spores from hospital sheets may explain sporadic outbreaks of the germ, and it’s possible that laundries that collect, combine, and distribute sheets to multiple hospitals may facilitate spread the bacteria from one hospital to another.

In a study in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, PhD student Joanna Tarrant; Katie Laird, of the School of Pharmacy at De Montfort University in Leicester, United Kingdom; and colleagues used two different methods to see if commercial washing machines could kill C. difficile spores. 

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First, they inoculated swatches of cotton sheets with C. difficile spores and washed them along with sterile, uncontaminated cotton swatches, in a washing extractor that simulated a commercial laundry. They also washed bed linens that were naturally contaminated by patients with C. dififcile infections. These went through a commercial laundry cycle in compliance with the UK’s National Health Service healthcare laundry policy, and the sheets were washed with industrial detergent, pressed, and dried.

The researchers tested levels of contamination before and after the wash cycles and found that the process only removed 40% of the C. difficile spores. What’s more, spores were transferred from contaminated sample to the uncontaminated samples.

“The findings of this study may explain some sporadic outbreaks of C. difficile infections in hospitals from unknown sources, however, further research is required in order to establish the true burden of hospital bedsheets in such outbreaks,” said Laird in a statement. “Future research will assess the parameters required to remove C. difficile spores from textiles during the laundry process.”

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In the meantime, what can be done about sheets as a potential source of contamination and infections? When it comes to occupational exposure to infectious agents, there are many routes of transmission — including direct contact, droplets, and airborne transmission. Your best bet to avoid C. difficile and other germs may be to adhere to general infection-control techniques, which can help protect against a number of organisms: 

  • Using gowns, gloves, and other protective clothing
  • Wash hands thoroughly, and remind others to do so as well
  • Make sure tissues and hand cleaners are available
  • Get the recommended immunizations
  • Follow all hospital policies on infection-control procedures.

Last updated on 9/22/19.

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