Whether you call her an infection preventionist, a nurse epidemiologist or an infection control nurse, she is a registered nurse, or RN, and her job is to prevent people from getting sick. Most of the time, she's fighting enemies that can only be seen through a microscope. She may work in a hospital or clinic, for a county health department or for the federal government in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track infection control nurses, RNs earned $69,110 a year in 2011.
An infection control nurse starts her education in a nursing program. It may be a two-year associate degree program; a hospital-based diploma program that can take two or three years; or a baccalaureate program in nursing. From there, she might choose to go for a master’s or even a doctorate. Once she’s spent a few years getting her feet wet as an RN, she may go back for education specific to infection control; master's and doctoral degrees are available in that specialty. She may also take a specialized exam to obtain certification in the specialty of infection control.
Although epidemiology is the study of disease in general -- particularly how people get sick and what happens when they do -- the term is often used to mean preventing infections or dealing with outbreaks. Nurse epidemiologists may spend their days in a public health department dealing with communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough or diphtheria. These nurses often try to trace an outbreak back to a particular individual or help ensure that those who are infected are properly quarantined and take the correct medication.
An infection control nurse who works in a hospital is often concerned with two types of infections: nosocomial and community-acquired. Nosocomial is an odd name for what is essentially an infection that you got because you were hospitalized. It could be an infection in a surgical wound or a bad case of pneumonia from having a tube in your throat to help you breathe. Unfortunately, hospitals are often places where resistant organisms -- bacteria that don’t respond to the usual antibiotics -- tend to be found, because that’s where people go for care when they are sick. Community-acquired infections are what patients bring into the hospital with them, such as the child who is admitted with a broken arm but who develops chicken pox the second day in the hospital.
Infection control nurses help to prevent infections by teaching healthcare staff about infection-prevention strategies, such as washing their hands or wearing protective clothing. They may take samples from machines or various surfaces to determine what kinds of germs are in residence. They also work with public health officials by notifying them of certain kinds of illnesses, such as tuberculosis or AIDS, when patients who have those diseases are admitted to the hospital. They may also ensure that all hospital staff have been vaccinated to prevent the spread of diseases to or from patients.
Infection control nurses are often tasked with preparing for epidemics or disaster situations. Earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters may result in contaminated water or food supplies. An influenza epidemic can be devastating to a community, and there is always the risk that the disease will spread very quickly. Bioterrorism is another potential infection control issue. Infection control nurses spend time planning and practicing scenarios that would help the greatest number of people survive the disaster.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.