Why do nurses always wear gloves if you can't get HIV from casual contact?

Patient and doctor shaking hands
Patient and doctor shaking hands. Walker and Walker / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Question: Why do nurses always wear gloves if you can't get HIV from casual contact?

Too much knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing. A reader recently wrote to me to ask why, if HIV isn't spread by casual contact, healthcare providers are told to always wear gloves when dealing with HIV positive patients and prison guards are told to wear them when breaking up fist fights. He wondered if the general public was being misled about the true danger of HIV transmission, and asked me to help him understand why professionals seemed to be getting different information than he was as a regular citizen.

This is what I told him.

Answer:

If skin is intact (there are no cuts, for example), there is no risk of HIV transmission from casual contact such as shaking hands, hugging, and kissing on the cheek. Intact skin is an excellent barrier for HIV. HIV is transmitted only via potentially infected secretions such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk.

Nurses are not just told to wear gloves when dealing with HIV patients... they're told to wear them all the time. This is because nurses and other healthcare providers often come into contact with bodily fluids unexpectedly; it's impossible to say when they will and when they won't. Wearing gloves helps to reduce individuals' risk of exposure to bacteria or viruses that can be transmitted by touch; it also helps keep them from spreading such bugs from patient to patient, or from self to patient. Gloves are always changed between patients to help reduce the transmission of diseases from one patient to another.

In addition, washing the hands with soap and using alcohol-based sanitizing gels are other ways that nurses and other medical personnel protect patients.

As for prison guards, hand-to-hand combat can cause a lot of damage. Wearing gloves helps to reduce the risk of accidental exposure to infected blood -- a fluid that's a known HIV risk and can also transmit other diseases.

It is, after all, not just HIV that individuals are worrying about catching. Other viruses, such as hepatitis C.. or even influenza, are easier to catch and harder to kill.

Continue Reading