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Needlestick injuries

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Needlestick injuries happen when a sharp object, such as a needle, syringe or blade, accidentally breaks the skin.
  • A needlestick injury can expose you to blood-borne viruses (for example hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV) or dangerous substances, such as medicines, drugs or chemicals.
  • Always handle sharp objects carefully, use safety devices when available and throw away used needles in specially marked sharps containers to prevent needlestick injuries and protect your health.

What are needlestick injuries?

Needlestick injuries happen when a sharp object, such as a needle, syringe or blade, accidentally breaks the skin. These injuries can happen during medical procedures, when handling medical waste, or when used needles are not disposed of properly.

A needlestick injury can expose you to blood-borne viruses (for example hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV) or dangerous substances, such as medicines, drugs or chemicals.

How do needlestick injuries happen?

Needlestick injuries can happen wherever sharp objects like needles, syringes or sharp blades are present. That means they can happen in hospitals and non-hospital places, such as office-based practices, home-healthcare and aged-care facilities.

Needlestick injuries in healthcare places can be prevented, but they most often happen when:

  • using a sharp device on someone else
  • after use and before disposing
  • during or after appropriate or inappropriate disposing

There are many medical conditions that involve using needles or syringes by self-injection in the home. These include diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), renal failure, infertility, allergies and vitamin deficiencies. Farmers and pet owners may need to inject animals, putting them at risk of needlestick injuries. People who use illegal drugs, and anyone who shares a space with them, are also at risk of needlestick injuries.

Improper disposal of used needles, such as throwing them in the regular rubbish bin instead of a specially designed sharps container, can also lead to needlestick injuries when someone comes into contact with the discarded sharp object.

Accidental contact with needles left in public places or mishandling needles at work or during hobbies or activities like sewing or crafting can also result in needlestick injuries. It's important to be careful around sharp objects and always follow safety guidelines to prevent these types of injuries.

What are the risks of needlestick injuries?

The risk of catching a serious infection from an accidental needle stick injury is very low, because viruses do not survive for long outside of the body.

There are, however, some serious health risks associated with needlestick injuries. One of the main dangers is the risk of blood-borne viruses, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. Being in contact with these viruses can spread infection and lead to long-term health problems.

Situations that increase your risk of significant injury or disease include:

  • sharing or reusing injecting equipment
  • if the person who used the needle is known to be infected with a blood-borne virus
  • if the needlestick injury is from a deliberate assault
  • if the needle is large and hollow
  • if the needle was used by someone with a history of injecting drugs
  • if the needle was directly placed into a vein or artery
  • if the device has visible signs of blood

Needlestick injuries can also cause pain, redness or swelling at the site of the injury. It's important to seek medical attention immediately if you experience a needlestick injury to reduce the risk of infection and receive appropriate care.

What should I do if I have a needlestick injury?

If you have a needlestick injury, wash the wound with soap and water for 30 seconds or more. If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Then go straight to your doctor or to the nearest hospital emergency department.

It's important that you wash the area with plenty of water. If you aren't near a tap but have bottled water, use that. Do not squeeze or rub the area around the puncture. Cover the wound site with a clean dressing, or adhesive plaster. Seek medical advice immediately.

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How are needlestick injuries treated?

In many situations, if you've had a needlestick injury, you will only need to wash the area with soap and water, and apply a dressing to the needle injury site.

If you've experienced a needlestick injury, you may be feeling anxious or distressed, especially if you are worried about catching a blood-borne disease. Your doctor or health provider can reassure you that your chance of significant injury is low, and can help manage your risk. Counselling is an important part of this support and can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Can needlestick injuries be prevented?

Needlestick injuries can be prevented with proper safety measures. One of the most important steps is to always handle sharp objects, such as needles and lancets, carefully and responsibly. This includes using safety devices like needle guards or retractable needles when available, never bending the needle and never recapping needles by hand.

It's very important to dispose of used needles immediately in special sharps containers immediately after use. Never throw away a needle, syringe or blade in a regular rubbish bin where they can be a risk to others.

Tips for people who self-inject at home

People who need to inject at home should:

  • use a sharps container or puncture resistant screw top plastic container (NOT glass)
  • store the container out of reach of children
  • never fill the container right to the top; seal the lid of the container when it's ¾ full
  • dispose of the container in a community sharps disposal bin

What to do if you find a used syringe in a public place

If you see a used syringe in public, call the Needle Clean Up Hotline on 1300 13 1340 for advice and guidance.

If you need to dispose of the syringe yourself, follow these steps:

  • find a hard-walled, puncture-proof container with a wide top and a secure lid
  • bring the container to the syringe so you don't have to carry the syringe
  • place the container on the ground next to the syringe
  • use protective gloves or tongs and carefully pick up the syringe, avoiding the sharp end
  • do not recap the needle if the cap has been removed
  • place the syringe in the container, sharp end first
  • if available, secure the lid of the container

After you've safely removed the syringe into the container:

  • wash your hands with running water and soap
  • place the container in a sharps disposal bin — call the Needle Clean Up Hotline on 1300 13 1340 to find your nearest disposal location

Resources and support

If you have a needlestick injury, see your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

View the NSW Health poster on sharps disposal. Information is also available in a range of community languages.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2024

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