Spread of infection within a hospital requires 3 elements: a source of infecting organisms, a susceptible host, and a means of transmission for the organism.
The source of the infecting agent may be patients, personnel, or on occasion, visitors, and may include persons with acute disease, persons in the incubation period of the disease, or persons who are colonized by the infectious agent but have no apparent disease. Another source of infection can be the person's own endogenous flora (autogenous infection). Other potential sources are inanimate objects in the environment that have become contaminated, including equipment and medications.
Patients' resistance to pathogenic microorganisms varies greatly. Some persons may be immune to or able to resist colonization by an infectious agent; others exposed to the same agent may establish a commensal relationship with the infecting organism and become asymptomatic carriers; still others may develop clinical disease. Persons with diabetes mellitus, lymphoma, leukemia, neoplasia, granulocytopenia, or uremia and those treated with certain antimicrobials, corticosteroids, irradiation, or immunosuppressive agents may be particularly prone to infection. Age, chronic debilitating disease, shock, coma, traumatic injury, or surgical procedures also make a person more susceptible.
Microorganisms are transmitted by various routes, and the same microorganism may be transmitted by more than 1 route. For example, varicella-zoster virus can spread either by the airborne route (droplet nuclei) or by direct contact. The differences in infectivity and in the mode of transmission of the various agents form the basis for the differences in isolation precautions that are recommended in this guideline.
There are 4 main routes of transmission—contact, vehicle, airborne, and vectorborne.