Exposure to Infectious Agents

by Michael_Koger

There are many infectious agents which may require prophylaxis to prevent acquisition of a medical condition.

On occasion, hospital workers and others in the community may encounter a microorganism and hence have risk that he or she will acquire an infection. Though the term "postexposure prophylaxis" is commonly a reference to prevention of human immunodeficiency virus transmission, the procedure indeed has to do with many other microbes which are capable of spread to humans [1].

It is important to know that when someone encounters a microorganism, he or she may be in a position to give it to patients, family members, sexual partners, hospital staff, and other individuals in the community. These situations require clinical evaluation as well as counseling of all parties who may be in the network at risk [1, 2].

The medical team may consist of infection control nurses, primary care physicians, and specialists who are able to read and interpret reputable literature on the subject [1].

Who is at Risk?

The seriousness of these scenarios will depend on the virulence of the microbe as well as the status of the patient’s immune system.  For example, Francisella tularensis, the responsible agent for tularemia in humans, is one of the most deadly microorganisms which physicians have ever encountered.  On the other hand, some bacteria and viruses cause few, if any, symptoms in people and pose little threat to the community [1].

Infants, children, and adolescents require a higher index of suspicion than young adults.  This is because the immune systems of those who have not yet reached adulthood are still in development.  This places them at risk for acquisition of disease.  Moreover, people who are at least 50 years old may have suffered a decline in the efficiency of their body’s defense system [1]. 

Therefore, elderly clients require careful evaluation and management whenever exposure may have happened [1, 2].

Additionally, pregnant women must consider safety of the fetus as she may need antimicrobial medication in the event of an exposure.  This is also true when a woman breastfeeds, as some ailments as well as the drugs to treat them can pass to the baby via breast milk.


There have been many new developments in the area of exposure to microorganisms.  Prompt medical attention is the best approach even when one is unsure that such an incident has taken place.


  1. Bader, M., Brooks, A., Kelley, D., and Srigley, J.  (2017).  Postexposure management of infectious diseases.  Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 84, 65-80.
  2. World Health Organization.  (2017).  Post-exposure prophylaxis.
  3. The photo shows a library at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  Reprinted with permission of that organization.


The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact their physician for advice.


Updated: 02/24/2017, Michael_Koger
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