Sterilization and disinfection might sound the same. However, these two processes are very much different. In some processes and practices, the two differ in terms of levels of protection against infection.
What is the difference between the two?
Disinfection kills microorganisms but not the spores. These microorganisms form spores with a protective membrane around it. This membrane acts as a hard shell that protects the microorganisms from disinfectant chemicals.
Sterilization, on the other hand, involves the killing of all life forms, including spores. This process is called asepsis. It means all vegetative and spore-forming microorganisms are destroyed, can’t survive, reproduce, or transmit anymore.
However, one can’t go around sterilizing everything as this is not advisable.
According to health experts, large items and surfaces that do not come in contact with patients or the healthcare setting can be disinfected. This is much faster to do as it saves time and resources.
On the other hand, a lot of things (items, objects) cannot be sterilized. For instance, items which have been damaged by heat or large items can’t be sterilized. In these cases, disinfection of surfaces gives the needed protection to prevent disease transmission from one patient to clinic staff and visitors.
Still, disinfection is not enough to provide total protection from infection. Since disinfectants are generally chemicals that kill microorganisms, it can’t be applied on items that go on a patient’s mouth. Each item that goes to a patient’s mouth must be sterilized and cleaned.
Oftentimes in the healthcare setting, a liquid chemical sterilant is used. After application, the liquid sterilant must be properly rinsed with sterilised water for 10 hours to remove residues. You can’t simply use tap water which has the potential to contaminate the items you have just sterilized.
Sterilization and Disinfection Guidelines
There are specific guidelines by the CDC as to which items need to be disinfected or sterilized. In healthcare, the staff should be properly aware of this. The CDC has also published a list of critical and non-critical items to determine the right method of disinfection.
In a dental clinic, the CDC has identified:
- Forceps, scalpels, bone chisels, scalers, and surgical burs are critical items. These are items that penetrate soft tissue or bone or enter/contact the bloodstream. These items should be heavily sterilized.
- Moreover, semi-critical instruments don’t penetrate soft tissues or bone but do contact mucous membranes or non-intact skin. Examples of semi-critical items are mirrors, reusable impression trays, digital radiography sensors, intraoral cameras, and lasers. These items should be sterilized after each use.
- Those that come in contact with the skin like x-ray heads, blood pressure cuffs must be disinfected in between patients to avoid contamination.
The disinfectant or sterilant manufacturer should provide the basic information on use of both agents, as sterilization and disinfection are two processes which can’t be used together.
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