What Is Sterile Technique?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Sterile technique is the application of procedures to maintain sterility in an environment where contamination could create problems, like an operating room or a microbiology research facility. These procedures limit the chance of contamination and keep the workspace clean so any results obtained are reliable. In patient care, sterile technique is critical to reduce the risks of hospital-acquired infection, which could lead to serious complications in a sick patient who may lack the immune system needed to throw off microorganisms.

Medical equipment, such as syringes, must be kept in sterile conditions before use.
Medical equipment, such as syringes, must be kept in sterile conditions before use.

Health care providers, researchers, and other personnel who work in sterile environments receive training when they go to school and may receive an additional orientation when they start work at a new facility. Some practices are standard across an entire industry; surgeons, for example, always gown and glove to work on patients. Others may be specific to a particular facility, and personnel may need extra training to learn to perform them accurately and appropriately.

To maintain sterile technique in a hospital, surgeons always put on a gown and gloves to work on patients.
To maintain sterile technique in a hospital, surgeons always put on a gown and gloves to work on patients.

In sterile technique, the goal is to keep the workspace and tools clean and clear at all times. Anything brought into the workspace must either be sterile, or of direct interest. In surgery, for example, nurses drape the patient to expose just the surgical site, the surgeon and other staff wear protective garments, and they use sterile tools. Any microorganisms present should already be in the surgical field. This limits the chance of introducing an infectious organism that might compromise the patient's recovery.

Surgical gloves are a critical part of keeping surgeries sterile.
Surgical gloves are a critical part of keeping surgeries sterile.

Researchers use sterile technique to make sure they know which organisms they are working on. When they introduce things to a petri dish, vial, or workspace, they do so deliberately. They may add microorganisms to a culture to grow it and find out what is infecting a patient, or for the purpose of other types of research. In all cases, they use techniques like venting to carry organisms away from the bench, gloves to avoid introducing bacteria they carry, and special cleaning solutions on the bench to keep it clear.

The workspace and tools must be kept clean at all times when sterile technique is used.
The workspace and tools must be kept clean at all times when sterile technique is used.

The practice of sterile technique is also important in evidence collection and processing for forensic purposes. Technicians cannot work with compromised evidence, and if there are signs of contamination, it may be discarded in court, even if it is highly applicable. Technicians store materials from a crime scene carefully and handle them in a sterile environment to prevent cross-contamination. If fibers from one crime scene show up in evidence from another, this should indicate a connection between the crimes, not sloppy sterile technique on the part of a member of the lab staff.

Sterile techniques are used to collect evidence from crime scenes.
Sterile techniques are used to collect evidence from crime scenes.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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