You’ve heard the above terms when it comes to your medical supplies, but what do they really mean?
Sterile means that an instrument has been made completely free of any microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungal spores) by some chemical or physical process.
Disinfected means that the item has been processed using a method that inhibits bacterial growth but is generally one step down from sterilized.
Clean means washed free of dirt.
Can Something Be Sterile, But Still Dirty?
Something can be dirty but sterile! If I took a plastic bag full of dirt and put it in a pressure cooker for an hour, the dirt would be sterile but it would still be dirt!
The gold standard is clean and sterile, but having said that, sterility is sometimes overrated.
Superficial wounds are just fine when treated with clean instruments and clean water. Sterile instruments are most useful when a body cavity is entered, such as when I remove someone’s appendix. Other times that you want sterility is when you have a wound deep enough where you see muscle or bone. Most injuries you will treat as a survival medic will be superficial.
This is important to know because sterile medical supplies are a heck of a lot more expensive than non-sterile supplies. You can buy a lot more unsterilized gauze or gloves than you can sterilized gauze or gloves. Get the most bang for your buck by having 80% of your supplies clean, and maybe 20% sterile. We talk about this in DOOM and BLOOM show#15. Download it at your convenience!