Hospital Curtains Can Be a Prime Place for Germs, Including Superbugs

Hospital curtains
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The next time you're at a hospital, you might want to think twice before touching the privacy curtains that hang around patient beds, a small new study finds.

That's because these curtains can become ridden with bacteria, including the nasty superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), in as little as 14 days, the study showed.

The finding highlights the need to launder or change privacy curtains in hospitals every two weeks, at the very least, the researchers in the new study said. [Tiny & Nasty: Images of Things That Make Us Sick]

"Maintaining a schedule of regular cleaning offers another potential way to protect patients from harm while they are in our care," Janet Haas, a nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and the president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, who wasn't involved in the study, said in a statement about the study.

Even though health care workers, patients and visitors frequently touch privacy curtains, these materials are rarely cleaned or changed, according to the study. Moreover, people are less likely to wash their hands after touching certain objects, such as hospital curtains, than they are after touching patients, the researchers wrote in the study, published in the September issue of American Journal of Infection Control.

However, no studies have looked at microbial growth on hospital curtains over time. So, the researchers in the recent study investigated by monitoring 10 freshly laundered hospital curtains: eight curtains in patient areas and two control curtains in nonpatient zones. The researchers tested two spots on each curtain for bacteria every few days for three weeks. (The spots tested were near the curtains' edges, where people tended to touch the curtains while entering and exiting the room.)

None of the rooms were occupied by patients with MRSA, the researchers noted. All of the testing happened in the Regional Burns/Plastics Unit at the Health Sciences Center, in Winnipeg, Canada.

The results, the researchers found, were concerning. By day three, the curtains showed increased microbial contamination. By day 14, five of the eight curtains tested positive for the MRSA superbug, which can be deadly, especially in people with weakened immune systems.

By the end of the three weeks, all eight of the curtains in patient areas exceeded contamination levels that are allowed for food-processing equipment in kitchens in countries such as the United Kingdom, the researchers said. In contrast, the control curtains, which were placed far away from patients, remained clean for the entire three weeks.

"We know that privacy curtains pose a high risk for cross contamination, because they are frequently touched but infrequently changed," study co-lead researcher Kevin Shek, a resident physician training at the University of Manitoba in Canada, said in the statement. "The high rate of contamination that we saw by the 14th day may represent an opportune time to intervene, either by cleaning or replacing the curtains."

Hospital curtains aren't the only seemingly innocuous items on the hook for contamination. Other research has shown that MRSA and other dangerous bacteria can also hitch a ride on the scrubs of health care workers, Live Science previously reported

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.