Needle stick injuries are a reality for people who regularly use needles, like nurses and lab workers. It also can happen if you handle trash, even if it’s not medical waste. According to the CDC, some 385,000 health care workers accidentally stick themselves with needles every year.
Your chances of catching a disease from a single needle stick are usually very low. About 1 out of 300 health care workers accidentally stuck with a needle from someone with HIV get infected. But for hepatitis B, the odds can be as high as nearly 1 in 3 if the worker hasn’t been vaccinated for it.
The dangers are greater if you use drugs and share needles with someone who has a disease. Each time someone injects drugs with a needle used by an HIV-positive person, for example, they have a 1 in 160 chance of getting the virus.
Diseases Spread by Needles
Accidents and sharing needles can pass on many other kinds of viruses and bacteria, including:
- Hepatitis C
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
- Varicella zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles
- Epstein-Barr, a type of herpes virus
When it comes to HIV, your chances of getting it goes up if the needle:
- Has blood on it
- Was first stuck in someone’s artery or vein
- Was used for a very deep injury
- Was used on someone who dies within 2 months of the needle stick injury
What to Do
If you get stuck with a needle, act quickly. With HIV, treatment works best when you get it within the first 72 hours.
1. Wash it. Clean any accidental sticks right away. Rinse and wash the area well with running water and soap. No need to use antiseptics or disinfectants. It’s also a good idea to flush out your eyes, nose, and mouth with water or sterile saline, in case of any splashes from the needle.
2. Fact check it. Find out as much as you can about the person or persons who used the needle before you. It’s especially important to find out if they could have HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C.
3. Get treated. Tell your doctor what happened. Their plan will depend on your situation, including how deep the needle went in, where it stuck you, and your medical history.
If your doctor decides you’re at risk for infection, they can treat it several ways:
- Immunization shots. Some vaccine shots, like those for hepatitis B, diphtheria, and tetanus, help your body’s immune system kick in and protect you from those infections.
- Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors. These drugs can stop some viruses from reproducing, or make copies of themselves.
- Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Antiretroviral drugs don’t kill viruses. But a short course of these HIV medications, taken within 72 hours of your exposure to the virus, may keep it from taking hold in your body..
4. Report it. Half or more accidental injuries from needles and other sharp medical instruments go unreported. Reporting any injury from an accidental needle stick not only helps you get the right kind of care, it helps shape guidelines for future needle handling so other people stay safe, too.
You’re most likely to get a needle injury while injecting someone. But accidents can happen in other ways
- As you’re taking the needle apart to throw away
- As you’re throwing it out in a container
- As you’re putting the cap back on
These safety tips can help protect you:
- Use clean needles. If you inject drugs, check with your local or state health department about how to get free needles and syringes. Also, some nonprofit and advocacy groups run free needle exchange programs.
- Go slowly. Rushing can lead to accidents. Take your time when you use needles.
- Use safety features. Needle technology has come a long way. Learn and use any devices that can help you avoid accidents.
- Don’t recap needles. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends leaving needle caps off after use, so you spend less time with it.
- Always use a sharps container. Always throw away used needles in a container made for sharp objects. This keeps needles out of the trash.
CDC: “Stop Sticks Campaign.”
Medscape: “Needle Stick Guideline.”
The Michigan Nurse: "Needle stick injuries: nurses at risk."
The Hospitalist: “What Should I Do If I Get a Needlestick?”
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: “How to Prevent Needle Stick and Sharps Injuries.”
Aidsinfonet.org: “What Is Antiretroviral Therapy (ART)?”
HIV.gov: “What Is PEP?”