In medical care, there are few things more important than cleanliness. There are several different terms used in the context of keeping things germ-free, and the two most common are aseptic and sterile.
In many cases, they mean just about the same thing, but each one is often applied to specific situations.
Scrub in, mask up, and join us as we examine the differences between aseptic and sterile in medicine, note how each one is most commonly used, and explain their other meanings.
What does aseptic mean?
In medicine, aseptic means “free from living microorganisms that can cause disease (aka germs like bacteria or viruses).” In this context, the word is commonly used in the term aseptic technique, which refers to the collection of practices that are designed to avoid the introduction and transfer of germs and contaminants during medical processes.
Relatedly, aseptic gowning refers to the use of medical clothing to keep environments germ-free and avoid the transfer of germs.
Creating a germ-free environment is important in medicine but also in food packaging, especially for drinks, like milk and fruit juice, which can grow bacteria if they’re not prepared and stored properly. The word aseptic can also be used as a noun to refer to a product that’s sold in a special container that keeps bacteria from growing. The word aseptics refers to the system of packaging things in this way.
aseptic vs. antiseptic
The word septic means “infected” (the prefix a- in aseptic means “not”). The state of being infected is called sepsis. The whole point of making procedures aseptic is to prevent sepsis—to prevent infection. The word antiseptic means “relating to the destruction of the microorganisms that can cause sepsis” (the prefix anti- means “against”—that’s the “destruction” part). Sometimes, antiseptic means much the same thing as aseptic: “free from or cleaned of germs and other microorganisms.”
The word antiseptic is also commonly used as a noun to refer to a substance that prevents or inhibits the growth of disease-causing microorganisms. It’s common to put antiseptic on a cut to prevent it from getting infected.
What does sterile mean?
In the general medical context, sterile means the same thing as aseptic—germ-free. However, it’s most often applied to environments, such as an operating room, and to instruments and materials, such as scalpels, needles, and gauze. Modern medicine relies on things being free from germs to prevent infections and the spread of disease. To achieve this, medical materials have special packaging, and there are special procedures for handling such things and for cleaning places like examination and operating rooms.
The verb sterilize means to clean things in a way that makes them sterile—completely free from germs. The word sanitize often means the same thing. This is usually done by exposing things to heat or with the use of certain chemicals.
Sometimes, the word aseptic is used in the context of environments (such as so-called clean rooms) in which a germ-free state must be maintained after sterilization.
What else does sterile mean?
Sterile can also mean “incapable of producing offspring.” This can be applied to humans, animals, and plants, and to land or soil incapable of producing vegetation. A dog that has been neutered, for example, is sterile.
Metaphorically, it also means unproductive in terms of results or ideas. A business might be described as sterile, for example, if it is no longer earning profits.
How to use aseptic vs. sterile
Although aseptic and sterile both basically mean “germ-free,” sterile is more likely to describe medical environments, products, and instruments that have been cleaned (sterilized). Aseptic is more likely to describe techniques that keep an environment in its sterile state. Aseptic often implies that a procedure itself has been designed to avoid the introduction or transfer of germs. Still, the two words are often used interchangeably.
Examples of aseptic and sterile used in a sentence
- Scrubs, masks, and hair coverings are required to maintain a sterile environment in the operating room.
- The development of aseptic technique has greatly reduced post-surgical infections.
- If you’re unsure if a needle is sterile, it should not be used.
- Many genetically engineered plants are sterile to prevent farmers from reusing the seeds.