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Cross Infection

What is a cross infection?

A cross infection is the transfer of harmful microorganisms, usually bacteria and viruses. The spread of infections can occur between people, pieces of equipment, or within the body.

These infections can cause many complications. So, medical professionals work hard to ensure equipment safety and a clean environment.

Types of cross infection

The symptoms of a cross infection depend on the source of the infection. And also the part of the body that is infected. One of the first symptoms of a cross infection is a fever. This is the body’s first course of action to help get rid of an infection.

Many different types of infections can occur. Some examples include:

  • a urinary tract infection (UTI) from an infection caused by a catheter
  • a surgical wound infection that may cause redness, swelling, and pus
  • an infection related to the presence of a peripheral or central venous access line

Causes of cross infection

Cross infections can be caused by:

  • bacteria
  • fungi
  • parasites
  • viruses

These microorganisms can be transmitted by:

  • unsterilized medical equipment
  • coughing and sneezing
  • human contact
  • touching contaminated objects
  • dirty bedding
  • prolonged use of catheters, tubes, or intravenous lines

Media coverage has raised concerns over cross infection in hospitals by "superbugs" like Mycobacterium abscessus.

But infections can be spread in any setting, including:

  • schools
  • banks
  • stores
  • government buildings
  • homes

The risk for infection is greater when undergoing a medical procedure. But cross infection can happen within the body. An infection in one part of the body can spread to another, like a respiratory infection spreading to the ears or eyes.

Diagnosing cross infection

Doctors may use a combination of ways to diagnose cross infection. These include:

  • physical exams
  • blood tests
  • culture tests
  • urine tests
  • X-rays
  • health history reviews

Treating cross infection

Treating a cross infection depends on the condition. Antibiotics are used for bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections, but not for most viral infections.

Over time, bacteria can adapt and become resistant to medications. This leads to the evolution of "superbugs." These are strains of bacteria immune to multiple antibiotics. This can make them more difficult to kill, and can increase complications.

Prescription anti-viral drugs are used to treat specific types of viruses. Anti-fungal medications in topical or oral form can be used to treat fungal infections. And parasites transferred through cross infection may be treated with antibiotics and dietary changes.

Cross infection complications

Untreated infections can lead to:

  • diarrhea
  • sepsis
  • pneumonia
  • meningitis
  • dehydration
  • multisystem organ failure that could include the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys
  • death

The risk for life-threatening complications during medical procedures increases when cross infection is present.

It’s important to call your doctor immediately if you notice symptoms of infection. The earlier an infection is identified, the easier it is to treat.

Preventing cross infection

Cross infection is best treated at the source. Medical professionals follow special procedures to help prevent infections. Aseptic technique is a common process used to sterilize equipment so harmful microorganisms can’t spread from patient to patient.

Hospitals and other healthcare settings all have procedures to prevent infection. Before undergoing a procedure, you can check the facility in advance and ask about preventative measures.


Cross infections can complicate a condition or procedure. The best way to avoid getting one is to prevent it from transferring. Many public institutions have strict rules to help reduce cross infection.

Schools may not allow students to attend classes while sick. And some companies send employees home if they show symptoms of the flu.

These measures can significantly reduce the chance of cross infection. Also, washing your hands frequently and thoroughly, and practicing good hygiene, greatly reduces the risk of cross infection.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Cherney
Medically reviewed on: Aug 02, 2016: Graham Rogers, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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