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Bloodborne pathogens

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.

The most common and dangerous germs spread through blood in the hospital are:

  • Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). These viruses cause infections and liver damage.
  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). This virus causes HIV/AIDS.

You can be infected with HBV, HCV, or HIV if you are stuck with a needle or other sharp object that has touched the blood or bodily fluids of a person who has one of these infections.

These infections can also spread if infected blood or bloody bodily fluids touch mucous membranes or an open sore or cut. Mucous membranes are the moist parts of your body, such as in your eyes, nose, and mouth.

HIV can also spread from one person to another through fluid in your joints or spinal fluid. And it can spread through semen, fluids in the vagina, breast milk, and amniotic fluid (the fluid that surrounds a baby in the womb).

More About Hepatitis and HIV infections


  • Symptoms of hepatitis B and hepatitis C may be mild, and not start until 2 weeks to 6 months after contact with the virus. Sometimes, there are no symptoms.
  • Hepatitis B often gets better on its own and sometimes does not need to be treated. Some people develop a long-term infection that leads to liver damage.
  • Most people who become infected with hepatitis C develop a long-term infection. After many years, they often have liver damage.


After someone is infected with HIV, the virus stays in the body. It slowly harms or destroys the immune system. Your body's immune system fights disease and helps you heal. When it is weakened by HIV, you are more likely to get sick from other infections, including ones that would not normally make you sick.

Treatment can help people with all of these infections.

Hepatitis B can be prevented by a vaccine. There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C or HIV.

What to do if you are Exposed

If you are stuck with a needle, get blood in your eye, or are exposed to any bloodborne pathogen:

  • Wash the area. Use soap and water on your skin. If your eye is exposed, irrigate with clean water, saline, or a sterile irrigant.
  • Tell your supervisor right away that you were exposed.
  • Get medical help right away.

You may or may not need lab tests, a vaccine, or medicines.

Preventing Hepatitis and HIV Infections in the Hospital

Isolation precautions create barriers between people and germs. They help prevent the spread of germs in the hospital.

Follow standard precautions with all people.

When you are near or are handling blood, bodily fluids, body tissues, mucous membranes, or areas of open skin, you must use personal protective equipment (PPE). Depending on the exposure, you may need:

  • Gloves
  • Mask and goggles
  • Apron, gown, and shoe covers

It is also important to properly clean up afterward.

Alternative Names

Bloodborne infections


Beekman SE, Henderson DK. Occupational exposure to human immunodeficiency virus and other bloodborne pathogens. In: Cameron JL, Cameron AM, eds. Current Surgical Therapy. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:1343-1346.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Bloodborne infectious diseases: HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C. www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/bbp. Updated January 29, 2018. Accessed February 21, 2018.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Disinfection and sterilization. www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/index.html. Updated December 28, 2016. Accessed February 21, 2018.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Isolation precautions: summary of recommendations. www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/pdf/guidelines/isolation-guidelines.pdf. Updated October 31, 2017. Accessed February 21, 2018.

Review Date 11/20/2017

Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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