Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic organisms are everywhere. Not only do they cover almost every surface, but they also travel from place to place through the air.
This means that the threat of biological contamination is always present. As such, people working in many clinical, laboratory, and industrial settings must take extra care to avoid it. The procedures they use, called aseptic techniques, go beyond the typical steps of good hygiene and cleanliness.
What measures are involved in aseptic technique and why are they so important to follow? We’ll answer these questions and more below.
What Is Aseptic Technique?
To understand what aseptic technique is, let’s start by breaking down the terminology.
When something is septic, it’s contaminated with harmful biological substances like bacteria. You may have heard that term in regards to a septic tank, a holding tank full of contaminated wastewater. It also applies to sepsis, a medical condition in which an infection spreads throughout your whole body.
In contrast, aseptic refers to something free of bio-contaminants. Aseptic techniques are the standards and procedures that help to maintain a germ-free environment.
Aseptic Technique vs. Sterile Technique
There is some overlap between aseptic and sterile techniques, but the terms aren’t quite synonymous.
Sterilization is the act of decontaminating an item by killing all the present microorganisms. The most common sterilizing methods include steam, high heat, and high pressure. Filtration, chemical treatments, and radiation can also be effective.
Foods, surgical instruments, medications, and lab equipment are all examples of items treated with sterile techniques.
Aseptic technique focuses on avoiding and minimizing the risk of contamination. It does involve the use of sterilized tools, but it also extends to things that can’t be completely sterilized. These may include bacterial cultures and patients undergoing operations.
Why Are Aseptic Techniques Important?
Using aseptic technique in a microbiology lab may look different than using it in healthcare, but it’s vital in both settings.
In a laboratory, aseptic techniques keep samples from getting contaminated. Gathering accurate data from plated cells and microorganisms requires a pure culture. Any unwanted biological interference can corrupt the culture and make it useless.
In healthcare, aseptic practices are the most effective way to prevent infections. Without them, pathogens in the air, on surfaces, and even on the healthcare providers themselves can transfer to patients and make them ill.
No matter where they’re used, aseptic techniques also protect the professionals working with dangerous pathogens from getting sick.
Core Components of Aseptic Technique
The exact aseptic technique steps you need to follow will vary based on the setting you’re working in. Even so, some standard procedures apply to all aseptic environments. Here are a few of the core components to keep in mind.
Assessing the Risk of Contamination
The first step in following aseptic procedure is to assess the environment and situation. Depending on how high the risk of contamination is, you may have to take extra precautions to protect yourself, others, or sensitive samples. For example, performing open-heart surgery requires a much higher level of asepsis than giving a vaccination.
Decontamination and Protection
Keeping your environment free of germs starts with disinfecting all surfaces, tools, and key parts. However, disinfecting objects alone isn’t enough to prevent contamination. You also have to take appropriate protective measures to avoid spreading germs from your person.
One of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of pathogens is to practice good hand hygiene. This is why surgeons, for example, always wash their hands and forearms thoroughly before operating on a patient.
You may also need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). This may include, but isn’t limited to:
- surgical or N-95 masks
- face shields
- goggles or protective eyeglasses
- disposable gowns
- nitrile or latex gloves
- shoe and hair covers
While wearing PPE and practicing good hygiene won’t make you “sterile”, it will keep you from picking up germs or passing them along.
Creating Aseptic Fields
Maintaining a clean working environment is crucial to maintaining a germ-free space. To accomplish this, you’ll need to set up an area called an aseptic field.
An aseptic field keeps all procedural equipment contained in a way that’s either sterile or easy to disinfect before use. It can either be a micro field (like the packaging on medical instruments) or a general field (like an operating room).
These principles also apply when working with patients. That’s why you have to change into a hospital gown before surgery and why a doctor will disinfect your skin before giving an injection or making an incision.
Using Non-Touch Techniques
Touch is one of the most common sources of contamination. As such, you should only touch items when necessary.
To follow low- and no-touch techniques, do the following:
- wash hands and put on gloves
- disinfect surfaces before placing equipment on them
- wait to open sterilized tools until they’re ready to be used
- always re-wash hands and put on new gloves before handling equipment or touching the patient
- immediately dispose of contaminated items in the correct places
After the procedure is over, wash your hands and put on another new pair of gloves to clean and disinfect the area.
As soon as a sterile item comes in contact with a non-sterile item, it’s no longer sterile. To prevent cross-contamination, it either needs to be thrown out or re-sterilized before it can be used again.
Learn More About Avoiding Biocontamination
Whenever you’re working in a laboratory or clinical setting, avoiding microbial contaminants should be a top priority. The aseptic technique examples listed above are a great place to start.
To keep learning more about the specifics of aseptic techniques, make sure to check back with our site often.