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How to protect yourself from hospital-acquired infections

Infections picked up at the hospital kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, but some basic steps can help reduce the risk
How to cut hospital infections and save lives 01:44

After Heather Brighton had hip replacement surgery in 2013, she realized quickly something was terribly wrong.

"I started having bouts and attacks of diarrhea," she told CBS News. "I was in the bathroom every two minutes."

Brighton soon learned from doctors that she had picked up a life-threatening infection called Clostridium difficile, also known as C. diff, while recovering in the hospital.

"You're not eating. You're dehydrated and losing tremendous amount of weight," she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on any given day about 1 in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection. Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result.

Though rates of hospital-acquired infections have declined in recent years, experts say more can be done to protect patients.

Research, including a 2015 investigation from Consumer Reports, found that many of these cases can be traced back to inappropriate antibiotic use, the very drugs that are supposed to fight infections. Patients on antibiotics are more susceptible to C. diff, for example, because antibiotics kill off intestinal bacteria.

The CDC and doctors' groups, including the American College of Physicians, have urged physicians to avoid misusing antibiotics, and patients can also help by questioning the drugs prescribed to them to make sure they are necessary and appropriate to their infection.

Betsy McCaughey, founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, said there are other ways patients can be proactive. The most important thing, she said, is to make sure all visitors and medical staff wash their hands before approaching you.

"It's hard to do," she told CBS News. "People are intimidated by those white coats and nurses' uniforms, but you can be saving your life by asking them to do that."

Bringing a canister of bleach wipes can also help. A 2011 study conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that wiping down surfaces around the hospital bed can reduce the risk of some C. diff infections by as much as 85 percent.

"When you walk in, wipe the high touch surfaces. By that I mean the bed rails, the over the bed table, the call button, the television clicker," McCaughey said.

Doctors should also wipe their stethoscopes between patients.

Other steps patients can take include choosing a hospital and surgeon with low infections rates, and bathing with chlorhexidine soap, which can remove harmful bacteria you may be carrying on your skin, days before scheduled surgery.

As for Brighton, she calls her experience a big wake-up call. "I think hospitals try to make an effort to be as sterile as possible," she said, "but I think more needs to be done."

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