When you autoclave something, this means the same as sterilizing it with steam under pressure. The following blurb is a summary from the standard: ISO 17665 “Steam Sterilization for Medical Devices”.
Items must be exposed to saturated steam at high temperature, from 121°C to 134°C. Depending on the heat and instrument load, sterilization can be done between 3 and 20 minutes. The items must be thoroughly dried to avoid contamination after the autoclave cycle.
The combo of steam, temperature and pressure has been shown to be the most effective route for decontamination. Instruments in the machine need to have their entire surface areas sterilized. This is the reason an autoclave chamber is pressurized, to force the steam onto every microscopic nook.
There are controls and autoclave accessories in place to ensure that sterilization has been reached. Indicators that we place within or on the autoclaved items turn color when they reach a certain temperature. This is one way we know the gear has gone through the sterilizer process.
Our most reliable tool, though, is the spore test. Every morning, we run these “biological tests”. They contain some of the world’s strongest microogranisms, the ones that resist death the best. Small containers of these bugs are put through the steam sterilizer cycles, then we try to incubate them.
If these hardy spores do not incubate in the incubator after they have been through the autoclave, nothing else will survive. We can be sure the autoclave is functioning properly in destroying dangerous microscopic contaminants.
So, why do we observe such strict autoclaving practices?
These instruments and other gear needs to be free of contamination. These items are going to puncture a human or animal during a procedure. It must be sterile to avoid creating infections in the wound.
Infections are the main enemy of steam sterilizers. Surgical wound infections can be very nasty. They can result in prolonged suffering, amputation, and death in some cases. Sick people’s immune systems are already compromised. They need protection the most. This is why the strict standards and guidance are in place.
This is why so much technology goes into autoclaves. Patient and worker safety is also why I made this site and share details about sterilizers and these sterilization practices.
I hope this answers the question of what it means to autoclave something. Leave a comment with any other questions you might have.