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From the time of debates about the germ theory of disease, killing microbes before they reach patients has been a major strategy for preventing infection. In fact, Ignaz Semmelweis successfully applied disinfection principles decades before bacteria were first isolated. This chapter discusses the most important methods used for this purpose in modern medical practice. Understanding how these methods work has become of increasing importance in an environment that includes immunocompromised patients, transplantation, indwelling devices, and AIDS.


Death/killing as it relates to microbial organisms is defined in terms of how we detect them in culture. Operationally, it is a loss of ability to multiply under any known conditions. This is complicated by the fact that organisms that appear to be irreversibly inactivated may, sometimes, recover when appropriately treated. For example, ultraviolet (UV) irradiation of bacteria can result in the formation of thymine dimers in the DNA with loss of ability to replicate. A period of exposure to visible light may then activate an enzyme that breaks the dimers and restores viability by a process known as photoreactivation. In addition, mechanisms exist for repair of the damage without light. Such considerations are of great significance in the preparation of safe vaccines from inactivated virulent organisms.

Absence of growth does not necessarily indicate sterility

Sterilization is complete killing, or removal, of all living organisms from a particular location or material. It can be accomplished by incineration, nondestructive heat treatment, certain gases, exposure to ionizing radiation, some liquid chemicals, and filtration.

✺ Sterilization is killing of all living forms

Pasteurization is the use of heat at a temperature sufficient to inactivate important pathogenic organisms in liquids such as water or milk, but at a temperature lower than that needed to ensure sterilization. For example, heating milk at a temperature of 74°C for 3 to 5 seconds or 62°C for 30 minutes kills the vegetative forms of most pathogenic bacteria that may be present without altering its quality. Obviously, spores are not killed at these temperatures.

✺ Pasteurization uses heat to kill vegetative forms of bacteria

Disinfection is the destruction of pathogenic microorganisms by processes that fail to meet the criteria for sterilization. Pasteurization is a form of disinfection, but the term is most commonly applied to the use of liquid chemical agents known as disinfectants, which usually have some degree of selectivity. Bacterial spores, organisms with waxy coats (eg, mycobacteria), and some viruses may show considerable resistance to the common disinfectants. Antiseptics are disinfectant agents that can be used on body surfaces such as the skin or vaginal tract to reduce the numbers of microbiota and pathogenic contaminants. They have lower toxicity than disinfectants used environmentally, but are usually less active in killing vegetative organisms. Sanitization is a less precise term with a meaning somewhere between disinfection and cleanliness. It ...

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