Common Blood-borne Pathogens: Definitions, Risks, & Prevention

by | Aug 29, 2023

Blood-borne pathogens pose a serious threat to human health, capable of causing severe infections and long-term health complications. Understanding these risks and implementing effective preventive measures is essential, especially for healthcare professionals and those working in high-risk environments. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the common blood-borne pathogens, modes of transmission, preventive measures, and safety protocols in healthcare settings and beyond. Let’s explore the world of blood-borne pathogens and the crucial steps to safeguarding health.

Topics we’ll explore: 

Common Blood-Borne Pathogens and Characteristics

Blood-borne pathogens are microorganisms present in blood or other bodily fluids that can cause infectious diseases when transmitted from an infected individual to others. Understanding the most common blood-borne pathogens and their modes of transmission is crucial for anyone working in environments where exposure to blood or bodily fluids is a possibility. 

Let’s explore some of the most prevalent blood-borne pathogens and their potential health risks:

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV):

What is HIV?

HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically CD4 cells (T cells). Over time, HIV weakens the immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight off infections and diseases. 

How is HIV Transmitted?

HIV is primarily transmitted through unprotected sexual contact, sharing needles or syringes with an infected person, or from an infected mother to her child during childbirth or breastfeeding. 

From CDC (Click to make larger)

What are HIV Symptoms?

Early Stage HIV Symptoms:
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
Later Stage HIV Symptoms (if untreated):
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Recurring fever
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Prolonged diarrhea
  • Persistent cough
  • Night sweats
  • Skin rashes or sores
  • Short-term memory loss

Hepatitis B Virus (HBV):

What is HBV?

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that affects the liver and can cause both acute and chronic disease. 

How is HBV Transmitted?

The virus is transmitted through contact with infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and other bodily fluids. Common modes of transmission include unprotected sex with an infected person, sharing contaminated needles or syringes, and from an infected mother to her child during childbirth. Vaccination against hepatitis B is available and highly effective in preventing infection.

What are HBV Symptoms?

Initial Symptoms (may not be present in all cases):
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Chronic Infection Symptoms (if left untreated):
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Itchy skin
  • Pale stools
  • Jaundice
  • Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen)
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Spider-like blood vessels on the skin

Hepatitis C Virus (HCV):

What is HCV?

Hepatitis C is another viral infection that primarily affects the liver. 

How is HCV Transmitted?

Like hepatitis B, HCV is transmitted through contact with infected blood. The most common mode of transmission is through sharing contaminated needles or syringes among people who use drugs. While less common, other modes of transmission include sexual contact with an infected person and from an infected mother to her child during childbirth. There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, but it can be treated and cured with antiviral medications.

What are HCV Symptoms?

Many people with HCV have no symptoms initially.

Chronic Infection Symptoms (if present):
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Itchy skin
  • Pale stools
  • Jaundice
  • Ascites
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Spider-like blood vessels on the skin

Preventive Measures and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Preventing the transmission of blood-borne pathogens requires a combination of knowledge, training, and adherence to proper precautions.

Here are essential preventive measures and the effective use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimize the risk of exposure:

Universal Precautions

Treating all blood and bodily fluids as potentially infectious is a foundational principle that underscores the importance of consistent precautions. This approach not only ensures the safety of healthcare providers and patients, but also cultivates a culture of vigilance and responsibility in healthcare settings. By treating every encounter with blood or bodily fluids as a potential source of exposure, you can proactively prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens, contributing to a safer and healthier care environment for all.

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Hand Hygiene

Practice hand hygiene is a cornerstone of infection control, forming a powerful defense against the transmission of blood-borne pathogens and other harmful microorganisms. Thoroughly washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, is a simple yet critical step that prevents the spread of infection. This practice is particularly essential before and after patient interactions, as well as after touching potentially contaminated surfaces. In a child care setting, the same applies when working with kids. Regularly reinforcing proper hand hygiene techniques through education and training ensures that this foundational practice remains an integral part of maintaining a safe healthcare environment.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):

  • Gloves: Wear disposable gloves when there’s a risk of contact with blood or bodily fluids. Change gloves between patients or tasks and dispose of them properly.
  • Gowns and Aprons: Use impermeable gowns or aprons to protect clothing and skin from splashes or spills of potentially infectious fluids.
  • Masks and Eye Protection: Wear masks and eye protection (goggles or face shields) when performing procedures that could generate splashes or aerosols.
  • Respiratory Protection: Use respiratory protection (N95 respirators) when caring for patients with respiratory infections that may generate respiratory secretions.

Sharps Handling

Sharps, including needles, syringes, and lancets, are essential tools in healthcare settings, but they also pose a significant risk of transmitting blood-borne pathogens through accidental needlestick injuries. Proper handling and disposal of sharps are critical components of infection control to safeguard healthcare workers and prevent potential exposures.

Here’s an in-depth look at effective sharps handling practices:

  1. Use Safety-Engineered Devices: Prioritize the use of safety-engineered sharps, such as retractable needles and syringes with built-in safety mechanisms. These devices automatically retract or shield the sharp component, reducing the risk of needlestick injuries.
  2. Immediate Disposal: Dispose of used sharps promptly in designated puncture-resistant containers. Avoid recapping needles, and never overfill sharps containers. Seal containers securely to prevent accidental exposure.
  3. One-Handed Technique: Employ a one-handed technique when recapping needles or removing needle caps. This approach minimizes the risk of hand injuries and enhances safety during sharps handling.
  4. Education and Training: Ensure all healthcare personnel receive comprehensive training on sharps safety protocols. Emphasize proper handling, disposal practices, and the importance of adherence to safety guidelines.
  5. Needle Recapping Exceptions: If necessary, use one-handed techniques or mechanical devices for safe recapping. Minimize recapping instances by utilizing transfer devices for fluid transfer between containers.

Healthcare Setting and Blood-Borne Pathogen Safety

As a medical student, I am focusing on the healthcare setting, but most of these concepts transfer to every industry that may come in contact with blood-borne pathogens. This includes, but isn’t limited to, child care, senior care, and education professionals.

Healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and laboratories, are environments where healthcare professionals and patients are at risk of exposure to blood-borne pathogens. Implementing rigorous safety measures and protocols is paramount to prevent transmission and ensure the well-being of both providers and patients.

  1. Infection Control Protocols: Healthcare facilities must establish and enforce comprehensive infection control protocols. These protocols outline proper procedures for handling blood and bodily fluids, as well as the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimize exposure risks.
  2. Employee Training: Regular Blood-borne pathogen training sessions are essential to educate healthcare, child care, senior, or education staff about blood-borne pathogen transmission and prevention. Training should cover safe handling of sharps, proper use of PPE, and response to potential exposures. Learn more about the importance of blood-borne training here.
  3. Post-Exposure Protocols: In the event of an exposure incident, healthcare workers should follow established post-exposure protocols promptly. Immediate reporting, assessment, and initiation of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) when necessary can prevent infection.

Blood-Borne Pathogen Testing and Treatment:

Early detection and timely treatment are critical when it comes to blood-borne pathogens. Healthcare professionals who may have been exposed to blood or bodily fluids from an infected individual need prompt testing and appropriate medical intervention to mitigate potential risks.

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)

  1. Baseline Testing: The exposed healthcare worker undergoes initial baseline testing to establish their HIV status. This may include a rapid antibody test or a combination of rapid tests, followed by more comprehensive blood tests.
  2. Follow-Up Testing: Follow-up testing is recommended at intervals following the exposure, usually at six weeks, three months, and six months. The follow-up tests detect any seroconversion – the development of antibodies in response to HIV infection.
  3. Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT): In some cases, nucleic acid testing (NAT) may be used for early detection of HIV. NAT directly detects the genetic material of the virus, offering rapid and sensitive results.

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP):

PEP involves taking a combination of antiretroviral medications to prevent the establishment of a permanent HIV infection. Key aspects of PEP include:

  1. Prompt Initiation: PEP should ideally begin within hours of exposure and no later than 72 hours after the incident. Initiating PEP as soon as possible maximizes its effectiveness.
  2. Antiretroviral Regimen: PEP typically involves a combination of three antiretroviral medications, commonly referred to as a PEP regimen. This combination inhibits the replication of the virus, preventing its establishment in the body.
  3. Duration of Treatment: The duration of PEP treatment varies but is generally recommended for 28 days. Completing the full course is crucial to its success.
  4. Side Effects and Monitoring: Healthcare workers on PEP should be aware of potential side effects, which can include nausea, fatigue, and headache. Regular monitoring by a healthcare provider ensures any adverse effects are promptly addressed.
  5. Follow-Up Care: After completing the PEP regimen, healthcare workers continue with follow-up testing at the designated intervals (six weeks, three months, and six months). This ensures that any potential seroconversion is detected and managed.

Hepatitis B Virus (HBV)

Testing Protocol:

When a healthcare worker experiences a potential exposure incident to the Hepatitis B virus (HBV), prompt testing is crucial to determine their infection status. The testing protocol involves the following steps:

  1. Hepatitis B Surface Antigen (HBsAg) Testing: The exposed healthcare worker undergoes HBsAg testing to identify the presence of the virus in their bloodstream. This antigen is a key indicator of active HBV infection.
  2. Hepatitis B Core Antibody (anti-HBc) Testing: Anti-HBc testing helps to determine if the healthcare worker has been previously exposed to HBV. A positive result suggests past or ongoing infection.
  3. Hepatitis B Surface Antibody (anti-HBs) Testing: This test measures the presence of antibodies against the HBV surface antigen. A positive anti-HBs result may indicate immunity resulting from vaccination or past infection.

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP):

PEP for HBV involves a combination of interventions designed to prevent the establishment of infection. Key aspects of HBV PEP include:

  1. Hepatitis B Immune Globulin (HBIG): HBIG is administered to exposed healthcare workers as part of PEP. It provides immediate passive immunity by introducing ready-made antibodies against HBV.
  2. Hepatitis B Vaccine: In addition to HBIG, exposed healthcare workers receive the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine stimulates the immune system to develop long-term protection against HBV.
  3. Timing of PEP: Ideally, HBIG and the hepatitis B vaccine should be administered as soon as possible after the exposure incident, preferably within 24 hours. Initiating PEP promptly increases its effectiveness.
  4. Number of Doses: The number of HBIG and vaccine doses depends on the exposed individual’s hepatitis B vaccination history and immune response. Subsequent booster doses may be recommended.

HCV (Hepatitis C Virus)

Testing Protocol:

  1. Initial HCV Antibody Test: Following a potential exposure incident, healthcare workers undergo an initial HCV antibody test. This test detects the presence of antibodies against the virus. If the initial test is positive, it indicates exposure to HCV.
  2. Further Testing for Active Infection: A positive HCV antibody test is followed by additional tests to determine active infection. The HCV RNA test measures the amount of viral genetic material in the blood, confirming whether the virus is actively replicating.
  3. Determining HCV Genotype: If active infection is confirmed, healthcare providers may conduct genotyping to identify the specific strain of HCV. This information guides treatment decisions.

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP):

No Specific PEP Regimen: Unlike HIV and HBV, there is no standardized PEP regimen approved for HCV. Instead, the focus shifts to antiviral treatment for acute HCV infection.

  1. Individualized Treatment Approach: PEP for HCV is based on the individual’s infection status and potential risk factors. Antiviral treatment may be recommended for those confirmed to have an acute HCV infection.
  2. Prompt Consultation with Specialists: Healthcare workers exposed to HCV should seek immediate consultation with an infectious disease specialist or healthcare provider experienced in managing blood-borne infections. Specialists assess the need for antiviral treatment based on test results, risk factors, and the potential for acute infection.
  3. Early Initiation of Treatment: If active HCV infection is confirmed, antiviral treatment is typically initiated early to prevent chronic infection. Prompt treatment can reduce the risk of long-term health complications associated with chronic HCV infection.

Navigating the realm of blood-borne pathogen safety is an essential responsibility for healthcare professionals and anyone working in environments with potential exposure risks. By familiarizing ourselves with common blood-borne pathogens, understanding testing and treatment protocols, and adopting preventive measures, we can contribute to a safer and healthier work environment. It’s crucial to emphasize the significance of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) as a rapid response strategy and the importance of seeking expert medical consultation promptly.

At First Response, we are dedicated to providing comprehensive training and education on a variety of topics, including blood-borne pathogen safety. Our classes empower individuals with the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves and others. Join us in our mission to ensure a safer and healthier future by requesting a blood-borne class or registering for our online blood-borne pathogen class today. Together, we can make a significant impact on reducing risks and promoting well-being.

About First Response

First Response provides CPR, First Aid, and Fire Safety training to clients across Georgia and South Carolina for over 23 years. We believe training should be relevant, informative, and fun! Feedback from our clients consistently shows that they not only enjoy our classes, they learn something new–even for folks that have taken the class many times before.

Contact us to book a class for your facility, or sign up for a class here.

About the Author

<a href="" target="_self">Calvin Go</a>

Calvin Go

CPR, First Aid, and Fire Safety Instructor

Calvin has taught CPR, First Aid, and Fire Safety for First Response since June 2023. He is also medical student working towards his PHD. His experience as a medical student and safety instructor brings a unique perspective into his articles.

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