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Universal Precautions

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Updated January 26, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition: Universal precautions refers to certain infection-control steps that medical professionals take to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV and other infectious diseases. The scientific basis of universal precautions is that individuals should treat any blood or bodily fluid as though it contains HIV, hepatitis, or another infectious agent. In other words, universal precautions assume that all bodily fluids are dangerous and tell medical professionals to treat them accordingly. This not only protects caregivers, but also, by applying the same procedures to everyone, removes the stigma that might otherwise be associated with glove-and-mask use around highly infectious patients.

OSHA mandated the use of universal precautions as a form of infection control in the early 1990s, after it became clear that HIV spread through exposure to blood and certain other bodily fluids. One of the most interesting aspects of the mandate is that the 1987 CDC document on which OSHA standards are based explicitly acknowledges the fact that medical history and examination are not reliable methods of identifying blood-borne illnesses in all patients. This is still true, particularly during the early weeks of HIV infection, even though HIV testing has improved. It is also a problem for several other illnesses.

Also Known As: standard precautions
Examples:

The specific implementation of universal precautions varies from situation to situation. For example, while nurses might just wear gloves during standard outpatient care, in other situations gowns, masks, and eye shields may be indicated.

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