Regardless of whether you’re visiting a general practitioner, pulmonologist, or cardiologist, you’re likely to come into contact with a stethoscope. This insanely common medical instrument is utilized by scores of medical professionals to listen to patients’ hearts, lungs, intestines, and blood flow. Unfortunately, the stethoscope has a sordid reputation for being a haven for harmful bacteria.
According to Healthline, a recent study discovered that stethoscopes used in the intensive care unit contained a high level of potentially deadly bacteria. The study published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology found worrisome levels of numerous bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to serious infections.
To complete the study, researchers analyzed stethoscopes from the medical intensive care unit at the University of Pennsylvania hospital. The sample included 20 traditional, reusable stethoscopes that were utilized by nurses, respiratory therapists, and doctors. It was also comprised of 20 disposable single-patient use instruments located in patient rooms. Researchers employed 10 new disposable single-patient use stethoscopes as a control. More than half of the 40 instruments that were used on patients contained Staphylococcus. This nasty bacteria accounted for seven to 14 percent of all the bacteria sequenced on the instruments. Acinetobacter and Pseudomonas were other types of bacteria found on the stethoscopes.
While most staphylococcus bacteria doesn’t cause problems or results in minor skin infections, staph infections can become fatal if the bacteria invades deeper into your body. For instance, staph infections that pervade your bloodstream, joints, heart, lungs, or bones are especially dangerous according to the Mayo Clinic. The CDC reports infections caused from Acinetobacter bacteria rarely occur outside of healthcare environments. When they do strike, they can cause life threatening illnesses including pneumonia and serious blood or wound infections. Like Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas bacteria can cause pneumonia and blood infections.
In a statement, Dr. Ronald Collman, professor of medicine, pulmonary, allergy, and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and senior author of the study, remarked, “This study underscores the importance of adhering to rigorous infection control procedures, including fully adhering to CDC-recommended decontamination procedures between patients, or using single-patient-use stethoscopes in each patient’s room.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, offers specific guidelines and proposes stethoscopes be sterilized with a disinfectant registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. However, if you notice a stethoscope is soiled with blood, you should use a hypochlorite solution or a tuberculocidal agent to clean it.
Dr. Rachel Lee, assistant professor at the University of Alabama’s Birmingham Division of Infectious Diseases advocates, “carrying alcohol wipes and cleaning the head of the stethoscope, the part that touches patients, in between seeing patients in the hospital.” Dr. Lee also condones physicians’ use of patient-specific stethoscopes when they see patients who are on contact precautions or entry limits in order to prevent the spread of infections.
CDC statistics reveal a whopping 1.7 million individuals get hospital-acquired infections annually. Sadly, 99,000 people die as a result of these infections each year. As the aforementioned study didn’t examine the transfer patterns of hospital-acquired infections, it’s unknown whether bacteria laden stethoscopes contribute to them. Dr. Lee informed Healthline, “This study adds to other data identifying bacteria on practitioners, including neckties, white coat, and shirt sleeves. These results point to repeated use of stethoscopes as cause of contamination with a diverse community of bacteria.”
Frighteningly, stethoscopes might not be the only thing medical professionals carry around or wear that result in infections spreading from patient to patient. According to a University of Wisconsin study also published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, other objects such as neckties, white coats, and mobile electronic gadgets also harbor disgusting bacteria. Because neckties aren’t cleaned on a daily basis like other items of clothing, Lee recommends medical professionals ditch them.
While the University of Pennsylvania study may be the most recent one, it certainly isn’t the first investigation warning about the unsanitary reality of stethoscopes. A 2016 study published in the Italian journal Annali di Igiene: Medicina Preventiva e di Comunita revealed a majority of general practitioners questioned were unaware of cleaning recommendations for non-critical medical devices. The probe also showed a relevant bacterial growth on more than half of the examined stethoscopes’ membranes.
When visiting your trusted healthcare professional, observe any methods used to disinfect medical instruments, chairs, and other objects. If you’re concerned proper hygiene protocol isn’t being followed, politely ask your healthcare provider if his or her stethoscope has been sterilized since it’s been used on the last patient.