What is a Needlestick Injury?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2019
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A needlestick injury is an occupational injury where a health professional experiences an accidental puncture wound from a needle. Clinicians such as doctors, nurses, and technicians are not the only people at risk of needlestick injuries. Janitors, lab personnel, and garbage workers can also be in danger from needles that are not properly prepared for disposal. Patients can be at risk as well.

Classically, a needlestick injury occurs as a health care provider is withdrawing a needle from a patient. Either the patient moves or the needle rebounds and the needle ends up jabbing the clinician. People can also get needlestick injuries as they are attempting to recap needles, a practice that is no longer recommended in many clinical settings, and as they are withdrawing needles from vacuum vials filled with medications and other substances.

Needlestick injuries are a form of sharps injury. Like injuries with other sharps such as scalpels, they put clinicians at risk of infection. If a patient has a disease such as hepatitis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), rocky mountain spotted fever, malaria, herpes, tuberculosis, or syphilis, among many others, the health care provider can contract the disease from the blood on the needle. Direct blood to blood contact as seen with a needlestick injury is an ideal mode of transmission for many microorganisms.


When a needlestick injury occurs, there is a protocol to follow. Different facilities have different standards but as a general rule, the patient is asked to consent to screening for blood borne disease, the clinician is screened, and prophylaxis may be offered to prevent infection. The facility usually pays for prophylaxis, screening, and treatment and when the victim of the needlestick injury is a patient, special care is taken to reduce the risks of a lawsuit.

Needlestick injuries are very common in workplaces where needles are present. There are some steps that can be taken to avoid them including promptly disposing of needles in sharps containers and using safety needles. Safety needles have a shield that can be flicked down with the same hand that holds the needle to cover the needle and prevent injuries. Concentrating while handling needles is also very important, as many injuries happen when clinicians allow their minds to wander. One issue that has been identified is understaffing in clinical environments. People who work in understaffed environments are often working under pressure and in a hurry and this can increase the risk of mistakes.


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