What to Know About Aseptic Technique

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on September 22, 2023
3 min read

Aseptic technique is a collection of medical practices and procedures that helps protect patients from dangerous germs. Bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms are everywhere, so using aseptic technique can help keep important equipment from being contaminated. Here’s what you need to know about how it can affect your health.

The biggest risk of many medical procedures is the chance for infection. On average, about 1 in 31 hospital patients has some kind of healthcare-associated infection on any given day. 

Your immune system is strong, but many procedures can carry germs into your body past your normal immune defenses. The simplest and safest way to prevent infection is to keep things as clean as possible.

Aseptic technique does just that. It’s designed to keep dangerous bacteria and other microorganisms out of wounds and protect you from infections when you’re recovering. Without these techniques, everything from surgery to simple IV lines would be much more dangerous.

Aseptic techniques are used in most medical settings. They’re most important when a healthcare professional needs to put something into your body. 

Procedures that involve aseptic technique include:

  • ‌Inserting PICC lines
  • ‌Performing dialysis
  • ‌Inserting catheters
  • ‌Running IVs
  • ‌Inserting chest tubes
  • ‌Performing surgeries
  • ‌Dressing wounds

To make sure an area is free from germs, aseptic technique uses four strategies to keep things clean:

  • Barriers. A barrier is a physical, sterile object that prevents any germs on the healthcare professionals from getting on the patient. Masks, sterile gloves, and sterile gowns are all types of barriers.  
  • Contact guidelines. Aseptic technique relies on keeping sterile objects guaranteed sterile. To do this, a sterile object that touches a non-sterile object is immediately considered non-sterile too. A scalpel that falls on the floor is non-sterile because the floor is non-sterile. 
  • Tool and patient preparation. Anything used in aseptic technique needs to be sterile. That means that tools and equipment are sterilized with heat or alcohol before use unless they’re prepackaged in sterile environments. Meanwhile, the patient’s skin should also be treated with antiseptic to remove any germs that are already present. 
  • Environmental controls. Finally, controlling the local environment helps keep germs from floating into the area. This is known as creating an “aseptic field,” and it can be as small as a tray of tools or as large as an operating theater depending on the procedure. 

There are three main types of aseptic technique that medical professionals use, depending on the situation. The three varieties are:‌

Sterile technique. The strictest form of aseptic technique, sterile technique is intended to provide a space that has no germs whatsoever. Sterile technique is used in surgeries and other large, invasive procedures where infection could be the most dangerous. It requires a sterile room, gloves, gowns, caps tools, and masks, along with handwashing and aseptic fields.

Surgical aseptic technique. This is a strict form of aseptic technique that can be used outside the operating room. It uses everything that sterile technique uses except for the sterile operating suite. Doctors use surgical aseptic technique for procedures that are complicated, take a long time, or involve many parts of the body.

Standard aseptic technique. The most common type of aseptic technique, this is the sterilization process used for things like dialysis or IV insertions. Doctors use handwashing, small aseptic fields, and masks and gloves to keep these small areas free from germs.

Not every medical procedure requires full aseptic technique. Minor procedures like physical exams can be performed with clean technique, which is less strict.

If you’ve ever seen a medical professional wipe down a stethoscope before using it to listen to your breathing, you’ve watched them use clean technique. Clean technique involves handwashing and efforts to keep things clean, but masks and sterile fields aren’t required. 

Other differences include:

  • ‌Sterile objects can touch non-sterile objects
  • ‌Environments must be clean, but not necessarily aseptic
  • ‌Supplies and materials are kept clean, dry, and uncontaminated, but full sterility isn’t required
  • ‌Gloves must be clean but not necessarily sterile

‌The difference is due to the risk involved. Simply having a physical exam doesn’t involve breaking the skin and puts you at much less risk of infection than invasive procedures. Because of the lower risk, it’s enough protection to thoroughly clean any medical devices used. As long as your immune system is healthy, the difference between being in a fully sterile environment and a clean office won’t affect your health.