The goal of visiting friends and family in the hospital is to help them feel better, not get sick yourself. While the hospital can help your loved one heal, it’s teeming with all kind of dangerous germs.

Health care organizations offer consistent recommendations for visitors to stay safe and be part of the solution — helping patients return home as soon as possible.

“It is important to remember that a hospital is a healing environment and behavior that is tolerated in other locations is inappropriate where people are seriously ill,” says Jenn Downs, a spokeswoman for Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hospital staff caution visitors against smoking or drinking anywhere on the grounds or property and warn them not to get into verbal or physical confrontations with the friends, family, hospital staff and, of course, the patient.

Related: How Good Is Your Local Hospital?

Keeping yourself safe

NextAvenue, a national service for Americans over 50, offers these tips for a safe visit with your loved one.

Leave your baby at home. “I can’t tell you how often I cringe at the sight of infants crawling around on a surgery waiting room floor,” writes Elizabeth Hanes, RN, in an essay on hospital visitor safety. Noting that this could expose their immune system to potentially lethal bacteria, she adds, “My advice as a nurse? Don't bring infants and toddlers to the hospital at all unless you have to. It’s not worth the risk.”

Wash your hands.This is the probably the important step you can take to control hospital infections, according to Susan O’Rourke, RN, of the Center for Patient Safety at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Wash before and after you visit your loved one, every time you visit.

Consider every surface is potentially contaminated. Bring along a small container of hand sanitizer and use it liberally.

Follow the instructions from medical staff. If you are asked to wear a mask or other protective clothing, don’t balk. It’s both for your own safety and that of the patient.

Mind the signs. Stay away from areas marked hazardous. If you see a “wet floor” sign, find a new route. You don’t want to take a spill and end up in a hospital bed yourself.

Don’t touch or play with any equipment on the premises. In addition, keep track of your children, advises Downs: “Don’t let them run down hallways or let them go into empty rooms to watch television.”

Wear closed-toed shoes to protect your feet from hospital germs and other hazards. If you wear sandals and “have even the tiniest of cracks in the skin around your toenails, on your heel or anywhere else, you’re inviting those germs in,” according to Hanes.

Wash your clothes and take a shower as soon as you get home.

Related: Medical Emergency? Help the EMTs Help You

Keeping the patient safe

Sometimes we may feel that we need to spend a lot of time cheering someone up, when we might be exhausting the patient instead. If your friend or family will be in the hospital only a short while, find out whether he would rather receive visitors at home, where it’s more comfortable. If he approves a visit, make it short so he can rest and continue healing.

If you bring a gift, be sure it is small and lightweight to make carrying it home after discharge as easy as possible. Some people are allergic to latex, so if you want to bring balloons, make sure they’re Mylar (foil) balloons. Also, remember that flowers aren’t allowed in cancer wards or burn units because they may have bacteria or fungi on them that could cause infections in people with compromised immune systems.

Here are some other tips for helping your loved one heal.

Don’t visit if you’re sick. No matter how anxious you are to see someone, you don’t want to give him your illness.

Wash your hands before entering the patient’s room (and again if you touch the doorknob).

Hold down the noise. Loud conversations from the hallway can be stressful for patients. If you need to talk with other visitors, go to the waiting area rather than standing in the corridors.

Don’t bring food for patients without the doctor’s approval. You may not be able to bring fresh fruit to a cancer patient, for example, because the fungi or bacteria lurking on the surface could cause an infection.

Let your loved one guide the conversation. This is not the time to bring up controversial topics or rehash painful events from the past.

Ask before using a cell phone and if in doubt, turn it off. In some hospitals, the signal can interfere with hospital equipment.

Check IDs. The medical staff at all U.S. hospitals are required to wear identification. If you have any doubt that someone should be treating the patient, ask to see an ID. 

Related: Quiz: Which Has More Germs?

Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.