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What every nurse should know about needlestick injuries

Nurses face all kinds of occupational risks: heavy lifting injuries, exposure to biohazards, increased stress and fatigue from overwork, and even violent patients, to name a few. One of the biggest dangers they face on a daily basis, however, is needles.

Nurses have the highest rate of needle pricks among health care workers. That's not surprising, considering they're the ones on the front lines of patient care. Needlesticks can expose nurses to a slew of serious illnesses from HIV and hepatitis to malaria, syphilis, herpes and more.

Understanding where and why these accidents happen is the first step toward preventing them.

Where needlesticks happen

Most happen in hospital inpatient units, where nurses are caring for patients at their bedsides. They also occur in operating rooms and emergency rooms.

Of course, these are the settings where nurses are most frequently handling needles. Yet the fast-paced, understaffed and high-stress nature of hospital nursing might also play a role. Fatigue is often a contributing factor. In fact, one recent study showed that rates spiked by 32% among new RNs working overtime.

How it happens

Sharps injuries typically occur while nurses are administering injections (or immediately afterward). Disposable syringes are the biggest culprits. Since the federal government enacted the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act nearly two decades ago, mandating safer needles in hospitals and health care facilities, injury rates have dropped. Yet they still affect nearly 400,000 health care workers every year - and more than two-thirds of those injuries involve safety needles. Often, the safety feature hasn't been activated, which is why needles with passive safety designs are the far better choice.

What to do if it happens to you

Should you end up suffering a needlestick, report the injury immediately. Far too many nurses keep silent because they're embarrassed or worried about getting in trouble. Yet time is of the essence in these situations. You will likely need to undergo testing and prophylactic treatments. The post-exposure protocol for HIV, for example, should be administered within two hours.

The overall risk of contracting HIV or other illnesses from a single needlestick is slim. Nonetheless, given the potentially life-threatening ramifications, it's important to take every incident seriously.

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