Bloodborne pathogens

Alternate Names

Bloodborne infections


A pathogen is something that spreads disease. Germs that live in human blood and can cause 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 can cause AIDS.

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

These infections can also spread if infected blood or bloody body fluids touch mucous membranes or an open skin sore or cut. You have mucous membranes in your eyes, nose, and other moist parts of your body.

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 are different from symptoms of hepatitis C. They may be mild, and they may not start until 2 weeks to 6 months after contact with the virus. Sometimes, there are no symptoms.

  • Most of the time, hepatitis B gets better on its own and does not need to be treated. But some people develop a long-term infection and have liver damage from it.
  • 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 HIV virus stays in the body. It will slowly harm or destroy the immune system. Your immune system fights disease and helps you heal. When it is weak, you are more likely to get sick.

Treatment can help people with all of these infections.

Hepatitis B can be prevented by vaccines. But there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, HIV, or AIDS.

What to Do if You Are Exposed

If you are stuck with a needle, get blood in your eye, or had other exposure to a bloodborne pathogen:

  • Wash the area. Use soap and water on your skin. If your eye is exposed, use running water only.
  • 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 patients.

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

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

It is also important to properly clean up afterwards.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.HIV transmission. Accessed Feb. 28, 2012.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C FAQs for health professionals. Accessed Feb. 28, 2012.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis B FAQs for health professionals. Accessed Feb. 28, 2012.

Review Date: 2/28/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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