Isolation precautions

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Isolation precautions create barriers between people and germs. These types of precautions help prevent the spread of germs in the hospital.

Anybody who visits a hospital patient who has an isolation sign outside their door should stop at the nurses' station before entering the patient's room. The number of visitors and staff who enter the patient's room may be limited.

Different types of isolation precautions protect against different types of germs.

Standard Precautions

You should follow standard precautions with all patients.

When you are close to, or are handling, blood, bodily fluid, bodily tissues, mucous membranes, or areas of open skin, you must use personal protective equipment (PPE). Depending on the anticipated exposure, types of PPE required include:

  • Gloves
  • Masks and goggles
  • Aprons, gowns, and shoe covers

It is also important to properly clean up afterward.

Transmission-based Precautions

Transmission-based precautions are extra steps to follow for illnesses that are caused by certain germs. Transmission-based precautions are followed in addition to standard precautions. Some infections require more than one type of transmission-based precaution.

Follow transmission-based precautions when an illness is first suspected. Stop taking these precautions only when that illness has been treated or ruled-out and the room has been cleaned.

Patients should stay in their rooms as much as possible while these precautions are in place. They may need to wear masks when they leave their rooms.

Airborne precautions may be needed for germs that are so small they can float in the air and travel long distances.

  • Airborne precautions help keep staff, visitors, and other patients from breathing in these germs and getting sick.
  • Germs that warrant airborne precautions include , , and  bacterium.
  • Patients who have these germs should be in special rooms where the air is gently sucked out and not allowed to flow into the hallway. This is called a negative pressure room.
  • Anyone who goes into the room should put on a well-fitted respirator mask before they enter.

Contact precautions may be needed for germs that are spread by touching.

  • Contact precautions help keep staff and visitors from spreading the germs after touching a patient or an object the patient has touched.
  • Some of the germs that contact precautions protect from are C. difficile and norovirus. These germs can cause serious infection in the intestines.
  • Anyone entering the room -- who may touch the patient or objects in the room -- should wear a gown and gloves.

Droplet precautions are used to prevent contact with mucus and other secretions from the nose and sinuses, throat, airways, and lungs.

  • When a patient talks, sneezes, or coughs, droplets that contain germs can travel about 3 feet.
  • Illnesses that require droplet precautions include influenza (flu), pertussis (whooping cough), and mumps.
  • Anyone who goes into the room should wear a surgical mask.


Siegel JD, Rhinehart E, Jackson M, Chiarello L, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee. 2007 Guideline for isolation precautions: preventing transmission of infectious agents in healthcare settings. Accessed February 20, 2014.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 2/3/2014
  • Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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