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Patient education: Blood or body fluid exposure (The Basics)

Patient education: Blood or body fluid exposure (The Basics)

What should I know about blood and body fluid exposure? — Blood and other body fluids (such as saliva or urine) can carry viruses and bacteria that could infect you if you are exposed to them. This is most often a problem for people who work in hospitals or other health care settings. The most serious infections to be aware of include HIV and hepatitis B and C.

How do I know if I have been "exposed" in a way that could infect me? — Contact with blood, tissue, or other body fluids from an infected person can be risky if it involves:

A needlestick or a sharp object that breaks your skin

Contact with the pink, moist tissues called "mucous membranes" that line your mouth, nose, eyes, and other body parts

Contact with parts of your skin that have cuts or scrapes that are still bleeding

Contact with concentrated forms of a virus, such as you would find in a research lab

Not all body fluids are equally dangerous. In general, blood has more viruses than other body fluids.

What should I do first? — Clean yourself off as soon as possible, then get medical care.

If you got blood or other fluids on your skin – Healthy skin is actually very good at protecting you from infection. Even so, if you get blood or body fluids on your skin, you should wash the area that was exposed with soap and water. If you have any cuts or scrapes on your skin, you should also use alcohol or another disinfectant on those parts of your skin after you're done washing.

If you got blood or other fluids in your mouth, nose, or eyes – If you got blood or body fluids in your mouth or nose, you should rinse with lots and lots of water. If you got blood or body fluids in your eyes, you should rinse with water or a saltwater solution called "saline."

If you were stuck by a needle – If your exposure involved something that broke the skin, such as a needle, you should wash with soap and water. But you should not squeeze or pinch the area to try to get anything out. This goes for a needlestick or for a cut with a surgical tool.

Who should I talk to? — Any time you are exposed to blood or body fluids at work, you should talk to your boss or someone in the "occupational health department" of your job. You might need to fill out a report, and you will probably need to see a doctor.

If you cannot speak to someone at work right away, or if this happened outside of work, call your own doctor right away. It is very important to see a doctor as soon as possible after an exposure. If you can't reach your doctor or nurse, you can go to the emergency department.

What will the doctor do? — The doctor will test your own blood to see if you already have any infections that you were not aware of before. They will also get as many details as possible about the type of exposure you had. For example, if you had a needlestick, the doctor will ask you:

If you know the size of the needle

If you bled after the needlestick

If you could see blood in the needle or syringe before it stuck you

The doctor will also try to identify the person whose blood or fluids you were exposed to. That way, they can try to find out if the person has any known infections, such as HIV. If the person has never been tested for HIV or hepatitis, they will be asked if they are willing to be tested. Testing the person can help the doctor figure out which treatments you might need. For example, if a test shows that the person does not have HIV, then you do not need any preventive treatment for HIV.

The doctor will also explain how likely it is that you could get infected, based on the type of exposure you had. For example, a needlestick from a needle that was used on a person with hepatitis C would be much more concerning than a splash of urine on your skin from the same person.

What if I am pregnant? — If you are pregnant or there is any chance that you could be pregnant, make sure you tell the doctor. If you are pregnant, your exposure might need to be handled differently than it would be otherwise.

What if I might have been exposed to HIV? — If you were definitely or possibly exposed to HIV, the doctor can give you the option of taking medicines to reduce the chance that you will get infected with HIV. These are the same medicines that are used to treat HIV. If you decide to take these medicines, you will need to start them as soon as possible and take them for 1 month. Talk to the doctor about the risks and benefits of these medicines for you.

What if I might have been exposed to hepatitis B? — If you were definitely or possibly exposed to hepatitis B, the doctor will want to know if and when you had the hepatitis B vaccine. The treatment you need will depend on whether you had the vaccine and how well the vaccine worked for you. If you were tested in the past and your doctor knows that the vaccine worked, nothing else needs to be done.

If you do not know how well the vaccine worked for you, the doctor might run a blood test to find out how well your body responded. Sometimes, the doctor might choose to give you another dose of the vaccine before the blood test comes back. However, if your blood tests show good protection, you will not need any other treatment to prevent hepatitis B.

If you got the hepatitis B vaccine in the past, but you do not have good protection, you will need to get the vaccine again. Sometimes the levels of protection can go down over time. But a simple "booster" shot can bring protection back up. You might also need a shot of a medicine called "hepatitis B immune globulin." This medicine can help prevent hepatitis B infection.

If you never got the hepatitis B vaccine, now is a good time to get it. It can still protect you from infection, even after exposure. You might also need a medicine called "hepatitis B immune globulin." This will help protect you until the vaccine starts to work. Plus, you should get any other vaccine you might be missing, such as a tetanus vaccine. This way you will be fully protected in the future.

What if I might have been exposed to hepatitis C? — If you were definitely or possibly exposed to hepatitis C, it's important to see the doctor to find out more about your risk. There is no vaccine or medicine to prevent hepatitis C infection. But the doctor can help you by watching you closely for the first signs of infection. If you become infected with hepatitis C, there is a good chance your body will fight off the infection on its own. But if not, treatment with certain medicines can cure most hepatitis C infections.

What happens in the weeks after a blood or body fluid exposure? — The doctor will test you again to see if you got the infection or infections they are worried about. These tests might be done several times during the months after the exposure. The exact timing depends on the type of test. If it turns out you did get an infection, there are treatments you can get.

In the weeks after your exposure, look for symptoms of HIV infection, such as:


Swollen glands

Sore throat

Sores in your mouth, penis, anus, or vagina

Muscle and joint pain


Weight loss

Also look for symptoms of hepatitis, which include:

Belly pain on the right side

Nausea or vomiting

Feeling tired

Loss of appetite

Eyes turning yellow


If you notice any symptoms that worry you, call your doctor.

More on this topic

Patient education: HIV/AIDS (The Basics)
Patient education: Preventing HIV after unprotected sex or needle-sharing (The Basics)
Patient education: Taking medicines to prevent HIV before exposure (The Basics)
Patient education: Hepatitis B (The Basics)
Patient education: Hepatitis C (The Basics)
Patient education: Treatment for hepatitis C (The Basics)
Patient education: What you should know about vaccines (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for adults (The Basics)

Patient education: Hepatitis B (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Hepatitis C (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Testing for HIV (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Symptoms of HIV (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Feb 02, 2024.
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