Sustaining a needlestick injury or other type of exposure is scary. According to the CDC, there is an average of 385,000 sharps-related injuries annually among healthcare workers. Healthcare workers are at risk for contracting diseases such as Hepatitis B or C as well as HIV - which can be terrifying. Despite legislation for needlestick prevention and safety measures in place, accidents do happen, and nurses need to know what to do in case of an exposure.

The actions taken after exposure depend on the type of exposure. For sharps/needlestick injuries, nurses should immediately wash the area with soap and water and "milk" the area to encourage bleeding. Viruses begin to multiply rapidly once in the bloodstream, so preventing entry into the bloodstream in the first place is extremely important. For splash exposures, nurses should scrub the area thoroughly with soap and water. For splash exposures involving mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth), irrigate the area well with water.

RELATED: Accident/Error and Incident Prevention: NCLEX-RN

Nurses should immediately report exposures to a supervisor. This is one of the largest problems; nurses are extremely busy and sometimes choose not to report right away. They may not want to "dump" their work on others and sometimes they are afraid of discipline for reporting a sharps injury. Some are even embarrassed, or are too frightened to face the possibility of contracting a disease or too much in shock to report. However, reporting should not be delayed - treatment should begin immediately to help prevent transmission of bloodborne pathogens.

Once reported to the provider, several things may happen at once. In some cases, the patient is contacted and blood work ordered to check Hepatitis B and C status as well as HIV. This is only if it is known where the exposure came from. Also, the patient must give consent to check blood work. Concurrently, the nurse would also get baseline lab work done. A Hepatitis B vaccine may also be indicated, and the nurse may choose the option of starting post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to reduce the transmission of HIV. Subsequent blood work (for at least six months) to monitor conversion status may also be indicated. Learn more about the role of HIV/AIDS RNs.

RELATED: How Do Nurses Protect Themselves from Highly Infectious Patients?

Nurses may also benefit from counseling services. As stated earlier, an exposure can be very stressful and scary, affecting not just the patient and nurse but the nurse's family as well. Some nurses feel like they "failed" by experiencing a needlestick or other type of exposure, playing the scenario back to find out how things could have been done differently.

Unfortunately, needlestick and other types of exposures happen. Nurses can reduce their risk by following safety measures and using needleless systems (when possible) and activating the safety device on sharps. Proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) when performing a procedure or task that has a high risk of exposure to body fluids is also critical. Nurses should also avoid rushing and "cutting corners" as it could result in an accidental exposure.

RELATED: How Do Psychiatric Nurses / NPs Stay Safe on the Job?

For more information on what to do following an exposure, please visit the CDC website.

Amanda Bucceri Androus, RN, BSN

What Are the Pros and Cons of Dual Degree Nursing Programs?In the United States, Dual Degree Nursing Programs (or DDNPs), sometimes called Combined Degrees, are degrees that mix nursing education…

Female nurse studying at computer.

Are You a Next Gen Nurse? Prepare for the Next Generation NCLEX (NGN) Questions Now!When 65% of the medical errors involving nurses are related to poor clinical decision-making, it is high time to change…

Woman nurse studying at her computer.

Do Women’s Only RN to BSN Programs Exist?Nursing and women's-only colleges have a long, shared history. Up until the beginning of the 19th century, women generally were…

Map for travel nurse.

Is Travel Nursing the Right Adventure for You?Jetting off to a tropical location or new city for a few months while getting paid top dollar can be…

CVOR nurse in the the operator room with other doctors and nurses.

What Is CNOR and Why Should You Go For It?The Competency and Credentialing Institute (CCI) is an organization that focuses on perioperative professional certifications for nurses. CCI identifies the…