What Is an Infection Control Nurse?

These nurses are on the lookout for trends and signs that could signal an infectious outbreak in a healthcare facility.

nurses talking in an infection control area of hospital
nurses talking in an infection control area of hospital

Pneumonia, influenza, catheter-associated infections, COVID-19: These are just a few of the medical challenges infection control nurses battle daily.

These important nurses specialize in the prevention, treatment, and control of infectious diseases. Depending on their role, they may also develop protocols for preventing the spread of infection, educate healthcare providers, or track patterns of infection on a large scale.

“For everything we do, patient safety is at the center,” says Apryl McElheny, the clinical director/administrator, quality assurance coordinator, and infection preventionist for the Laurel Laser and Surgery Center in Pennsylvania. “We work to ensure the safety of patients and employees, and to keep the organization running and profitable. This is even more critical in times of a public health crisis.”

How to Become an Infection Control Nurse

The titles infection control nurse and infection preventionist can be used interchangeably. To pursue this role, you’ll need to be a registered nurse (RN). Some employers require nurses hold a more advanced nursing designation, such as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

To become an infection control nurse, you need to be an RN, or in some cases, an APRN.

An infection control nurse is not an entry-level position. “You’re not going to be hired as an infection control nurse right out of nursing school,” McElheny explains. “Nursing school gives you the foundation you need in infection control and prevention, but it won’t make you eligible for an infection preventionist position.”

That is why you need to pursue infection prevention experience in whatever entry-level nursing position you land.

Education at a Glance


Degree You Need: Minimum of an Associate of Science Degree in Nursing (ASN), a type of two-year degree similar to an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) that focuses on clinical skills

How Long it Takes: 2 years or more

Where You Can Work: Hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, governmental agencies, long-term healthcare facilities, home health organizations, hospices

Licenses or Certifications You’ll Need: RN license at a minimum; often a Certification in Infection Control (CIC) as well

How Do I Get Infection Control Experience?

You might be wondering how you can enter this field if you need experience to get a job! “There are many things you can do to work toward a career as an infection control nurse,” McElheny says. She recommends taking these steps.

  • Target your job search.
    “Be selective,” McElheny says. You could work in a department that partners with a pathology lab, inside a diagnostic laboratory, or on a surgical floor. These jobs get you closer to working in infection control.
  • Research organizational structure.
    Find out who is in charge of infection prevention in your organization. Is there one person or a committee?
  • Find a mentor.
    Ask someone involved in infection prevention at your facility if they will show you the ropes. You can shadow this person, which can count toward experience needed to earn the CIC.

Licenses and Certifications

Most infection control nurse positions require not only an RN license but also certifications to demonstrate your knowledge of this specialty. Applicable certifications include an Associate Infection Prevention and Control (a-IPC) and Certification in Infection Control (CIC). The a-IPC is an entry-level certification, while the CIC requires more on-the-job experience. Like most healthcare certifications, they both involve passing a standardized exam.

Neither is required to practice as an infection control nurse, but “the CIC certification is the gold standard and what most employers are looking for,” McElheny says.

Associate Infection Prevention and Control (a-IPC)

Certification in Infection Control (CIC)


Required Education: None

Required Work Experience: None

Exam Details: 100 questions over two hours, completed on a computer

Certifying Organization: Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC)

Ongoing Requirements: The certification is valid for three years and is non-renewable. The expectation is that a-IPC professionals will then earn a CIC.

Required Education: A degree, such as an ADN, ASN, or Bachelor of Science in Nursing, from an accredited institution

Required Work Experience: Two years of experience with infection control-related duties, such as surveillance, identification of infectious disease, preventing the spread of infections, sterilization processes, and education

Exam Details: 150 questions on a computer-based test

Certifying Organization: Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC)

Ongoing requirements: The certification must be renewed every five years. Recertification can be completed by passing a standardized computer-based test or by completing 40 credits of approved infection prevention-focused ongoing education.


What Do Infection Control Nurses Do?

You already know that the duties of an infection control nurse depend on your title, experience, and work setting. That said, infection control nurses usually have some combination of the following responsibilities.

  • Surveillance. Infection preventionists track the incidence of infectious diseases. This can entail keeping tabs on hospital-acquired pneumonia on the ICU floor or on influenza across the state.
  • Analysis. Gleaning insight from gathered data helps organizations’ leaders see trends and make decisions to prevent or control infections.
  • Intervention. If infection preventionists spot a worrying trend, they are in charge of identifying how to stem the problem and measuring progress. For example, if they notice an increase in catheter-associated infections in a hospital unit, they can focus on training the providers who work there.
  • Developing protocols. Infection control nurses translate research and best practices into protocols, such as how to safely enter a patient room while decreasing the risk of spreading infections.
  • Training and education. Infection preventionists may train their team, offer education organization-wide, or even train people in multiple organizations. They may also educate patients—for example, on how to care for a wound after the patient has been discharged.
  • Patient care. Infection control nurses may treat patients directly.
  • Public health. Infection control nurses, especially those who work in public health settings, may track community health, coordinate with other agencies, and design campaigns to prevent or slow the spread of infection.

No matter which specific tasks infection preventionists perform, “these jobs give you an opportunity to be a problem-solver,” McElheny says. Whether you’re stopping the spread of influenza, persuading hospital leadership to fund staff-wide training, or designing a harm reduction campaign for people who engage in risky behavior, you’ll need critical thinking skills and creativity.

Other Infectious Disease Nursing Roles

While all nurses are committed to patient health, curbing the spread of infectious disease manifests itself in a variety of ways, depending on the specific role a nurse holds. If you’re interested in infection prevention and control, you can explore these related roles:

Nurse Epidemiologist

Work in a public health department to track patterns of infectious disease, such as influenza

Infection Control Staff Educator

Research current best practices and teach employees how to correctly follow procedures to reduce the spread of infection

Communicable Disease Nurse

Run outreach, treatment, and data analysis programs for populations that have contracted, or at risk of contracting, communicable diseases such as HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis

Epidemiologist and Infection Control Nurse: What’s the Difference?

The number of titles and terms for infection control nurses can be confusing. So, what is the difference between an infection control nurse or infection preventionist and an epidemiologist?

The difference depends mainly on workplace and responsibilities. Epidemiologists focus on public health and often work for local, state, or federal agencies, such as a state health department. They look at infectious disease from a bird’s eye view. They track trends at a wider level rather than focusing on an organization, as infection control nurses do. Epidemiologists typically require a master’s degree, often in public health (MPH).

Not all infection control nurses deliver direct patient care, but many do. Epidemiologists do not.

If you want to pursue the public health route, look for the job title “nurse epidemiologist.” These roles can allow you to enter the field of epidemiology without a master’s degree. 

Salary

As with most jobs in healthcare, compensation can vary greatly. The range in income depends on experience, education, where you live, the setting where you practice, certifications or specialties, and more.

$75,330
Registered Nurse Median Annual Salary

Registered nurses earn a median income of $75,330, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most infection control nurses are RNs, although you can also work in this role—and increase your earning potential—by earning a BSN, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and/or becoming a nurse practitioner.

“Your salary is based upon the organization’s budget, your roles and responsibilities, education, and experience,” McElheny explains. “Typically, I see a range of $50,000 to $95,000 for an infection control nurse.”

Career Outlook

“Infection prevention and control have become more critical than ever,” McElheny says. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of this role. In addition, hospital-acquired infections are serious but not uncommon challenges for healthcare facilities. Organizations are invested in addressing these issues, and that attention won’t wane anytime soon, McElheny says.

In addition, state and national regulations require that most healthcare facilities employ infection preventionists.

The result: greater demand for infection control nurses. The number of registered nurse jobs in the U.S. (including RNs who are infection preventionists) is projected to increase 7% by 2029, according to the BLS. That is nearly double the average overall job growth rate of 4%.

The BLS predicts that demand for infectious disease nursing will increase 7% by 2029.

“Facilities are putting more of an emphasis on this role,” McElheny says. “The people who specialize in infection control are being asked to steer the ship: to make sure all protocols are in place so organizations can run safely.”

Professional Resources

“To become an infection preventionist, you have to become inquisitive,” McElheny says. “Look at research, read articles, and become involved.”

She recommends staying up to date on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other resources include:

catherine ryan gregory

Written and reported by:

Catherine Ryan Gregory

Contributing Writer


apryl mcelheny

With professional insight from:

Apryl McElheny, MBA, MSN, RN, CASC, CIC

Clinical Director and Administrator, Laurel Laser and Surgery Center; and CBIC Board Member