Infection Control FAQ

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By Kim Laudenslager, R.D.H., M.P.A.
From the Summer 2017 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

Handpieces that cannot be heat sterilized should not be used in treatment.

Q: I know it’s a long standing requirement to heat-sterilize high-speed and slow-speed handpieces between each patient but what about slow-speed handpiece motors and hygiene handpieces?

A: The CDC made very strong statements in their 2003 and 2008 guidelines reaffirming the fact that “handpieces and attachments that cannot be heat sterilized should NOT be used.”

CDC guidelines, which are enforced by both the Colorado Dental Board and OSHA, state that handpieces and other intraoral instruments that can be removed from the air and waterlines of dental units must be heat sterilized between each patient. These instruments include, but are not limited to, high-speed, slow-speed, electric, endodontic, hygiene and surgical handpieces, as well as all handpiece motors and attachments such as reusable prophylaxis angles, nosecones, and contra-angles.

Studies show that the internal portions of high-speed handpieces and low-speed handpiece motors can become contaminated and that it is possible for retained patient material to be released into the mouths of subsequent patients. Therefore, handpieces and other intraoral instruments should be removed from the air and waterlines of dental units, cleaned and heat-sterilized between patients. Dental personnel must read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning, lubrication, and sterilization of these instruments. Attempting to surface-disinfect or barrier-protect these instruments is inadequate because these methods cannot adequately clean, disinfect, or sterilize the internal components.

Manufacturers sometimes offer products that can be used to retrofit handpieces whose original motors cannot tolerate heat sterilization.

About the Author: Kim Laudenslager, R.D.H., M.P.A., provides OSHA training and compliance seminars for dental professionals nationwide. Learn more at