The “scrubs” of intensive care unit (ICU) nurses often pick up disease-causing germs, including those resistant to antibiotics, a new study reports.

“We know there are bad germs in hospitals, but we’re just beginning to understand how they are spread,” said study lead author Dr. Deverick Anderson, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.

The researchers focused on five pathogens known to cause hard-to-treat infections, including an antibiotic-resistant superbug called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Researchers found that germs spread from patients to the nurses’ uniforms, typically the sleeves and pockets, as well as to objects around the room, such as bed railings.

The study included 40 intensive care unit nurses at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. Samples were collected from their scrubs before and after each 12-hour shift. Samples also were collected from all the patients the nurses cared for and items in the patients’ rooms.

“This study is a good wake-up call that health care personnel need to concentrate on the idea that the health care environment can be contaminated,” said Anderson.

Anderson presented the study’s findings on 27 October at IDWeek, the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA), and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society (PIDS).