Universal precautions have been around since the 1980s, but the current COVID-19 pandemic has made them more important than ever.

Doctor writing prescription

What are universal precautions? They’re a set of guidelines for preventing disease transmission. And they’ve led to other important sets of precautions for the modern age.

Public health professionals tell us that the pandemic may last until the later part of 2021, and the effects could last even longer. At the same time, many workers are bracing for reopening processes. Employees who aren’t used to following medical precautions, like workers at restaurants and schools, all of a sudden have to study up on disease prevention.

The good news is that there is a lot of information available for people who would like to learn. Universal precautions are a great starting point for people who are learning how to protect themselves and others from the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll go through some of the main elements of the pandemic and how safety precautions can help.

COVID-19 Transmission Risks

The reason experts are urging people to stay at home, wear masks, and avoid contact with each other is to prevent the multiple modes of virus transmission. People still disagree on whether airborne transmission could be a significant route of COVID-19 transmission, but in the meantime, there’s still contact and droplet transmission to worry about.

And in public spaces like sidewalks and large buildings, there are plenty of surfaces that can spread the coronavirus as well. When people touch crosswalk signs and doors, they could be spreading infection without even realizing it.


The coronavirus can “survive” for some time outside of the body before it degrades. Someone who touches a contaminated table might then rub their eye, giving the virus an entry point into their body.

I put “survive” in quotes because viruses are not technically alive. They cannot reproduce outside of the host (in this case, a human body), so they have a limited shelf life once they exit the body.

Experts say that the coronavirus can last for hours and even days on various surfaces. But this doesn’t mean they’re infectious the whole time. While it’s good to disinfect frequently used surfaces like doorknobs, the contents of mail packages have usually lost any potential risk of virus transmission during the time of transit.

Contact Transmission

People can also transmit the coronavirus through direct contact, like a hug or handshake. This is why current social distancing measures recommend against any unnecessary physical contact.

Droplet Transmission

And then there are the classic coughs and sneezes. When someone who has COVID-19 does one of these things, the coronavirus can travel through the air in droplets of fluid. This puts nearby people at risk for breathing in those droplets, thereby getting infected with the coronavirus.

Protection against droplet transmission is a major part of the reason people are wearing masks right now. They are protecting their own nose and mouth from breathing in other people’s droplets. And to a larger extent, they’re protecting others from their own saliva and nasal fluids if they happen to sneeze or cough.

What Are Universal Precautions?

In the 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) introduced universal precautions as a way to protect against the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Hepatitis B, and other bloodborne pathogens. The idea behind this was to treat all blood as if it were contaminated with one of these pathogens.

This became an effective way to control spread and cut down on unnecessary decision-making. Rather than trying to figure out whether the blood was contaminated or not, now workers just assumed it was.

These precautions are a set of guidelines about how to prevent exposure to contaminated blood. Recommendations include personal protective equipment (PPE), special disposal containers, and regular decontamination. Masks, gloves, and hand washing are all part of universal precautions.

At the start, universal precautions focused on blood and bloodborne diseases. Certain other fluids were included as well, as I’ll describe in the next section. Since then, the CDC has built on the basics of universal precautions by releasing new standard precautions and transmission-based precautions.

What Do Universal Precautions Cover?

Many fluids, like urine, are not covered under universal precautions. This is because these fluids were not significant sources of risk for HIV and other diseases people were focusing on during the 1980s and 90s. The newer standard precautions cover a wider variety of fluids, and in this way, they’re more comprehensive.

Rather than relying on universal precautions alone, these days many professionals use a combination of other sets of precautions. For example, the CDC now has something called transmission-based precautions for people with “known or suspected infections.”

Universal precautions, as well as the newer sets of precautions that followed, protect everyone in the situation. They protect healthcare workers and other professionals from getting infected by patients and clients. And they also protect patients and clients from getting infected by each other or the workers.

As an extreme example, imagine if nurses did not use a new needle for each patient after giving a shot. This would be a definite violation of universal precautions—and common sense—and would put new patients at risk of bloodborne infection. This basic thought process is behind the guidelines for frequent decontamination and other elements of universal precautions.

Have Precautions Changed During the Pandemic?

The answer is yes. In almost every situation, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for safety measures.

These days, newer guidelines like standard precautions and droplet precautions are even stronger than universal precautions. Some health agencies have explicit recommendations to switch from universal precautions to one of these stronger sets of precautions in the case of a pandemic.

Still, some people are failing to follow even universal precautions. Learning about what these precautions entail is an excellent way to get started on the basics of disease prevention.

Some people are even calling for new “pandemic precautions” or special COVID-19 precautions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll see whether these take hold, but in the meantime, it’s a good idea to get familiar with the concept of widespread precautions.

Protect Yourself and Each Other

Knowing about universal precautions is an excellent way to understand how to prevent the various ways COVID-19 can spread. These layers of protection may have come about as a response to bloodborne diseases in the 80s, but they’re relevant as ever now. Next time someone asks you, “What are universal precautions?” now you’ll be ready with an answer.

How have you set up precautions for your home and workplace? Let me know in the comments below!