Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients
Learn how to prevent infections and what you should do if you get a fever or feel sick (call your doctor!) during your treatment.
Cancer patients who are treated with chemotherapy are more likely to get infections. Each year in the United States, 60,000 cancer patients are hospitalized because their low white blood cell count led to a serious infection. One in 14 of these patients dies.
The immune system helps your body protect itself from getting an infection. Cancer and chemotherapy can damage this system by reducing your number of infection-fighting white blood cells, a condition called neutropenia. An infection can lead to sepsis, the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to an infection.
Find out from your doctor when your white blood cell count is likely to be lowest, since this is when you’re most at risk for infection. This usually occurs between 7 and 12 days after you finish each chemotherapy dose, and may last as long as one week.
Take the Right Steps Toward Preventing Infections During Your Cancer Treatment
Watch Out for Fever
Take your temperature any time you feel warm, flushed, chilled, or not well. If you get a fever during your chemotherapy treatment, it’s a medical emergency. Fever may be the only sign that you have an infection, and an infection during chemotherapy can be life-threatening.
Wash Your Hands Often
Clean hands help prevent infections. Many diseases are spread by not washing your hands, which is especially dangerous when you’re getting chemotherapy treatment. You and anyone who comes around you, including family members, doctors, and nurses, also should wash their hands often. Don’t be afraid to ask people to wash their hands. Use soap and water to wash your hands. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Know the Symptoms of Infection
Find out your risk for getting a low white blood cell count and infections during chemotherapy at PreventCancerInfections.org.
Call your doctor right away if you notice any of the following symptoms of an infection—
- Fever (this is sometimes the only sign of an infection).
- Chills and sweats.
- Change in cough or a new cough.
- Sore throat or new mouth sore.
- Shortness of breath.
- Nasal congestion.
- Stiff neck.
- Burning or pain with urination.
- Unusual vaginal discharge or irritation.
- Increased urination.
- Redness, soreness, or swelling in any area, including surgical wounds and ports.
- Pain in the abdomen or rectum.
- New onset of pain.
This fact sheet [PDF-174KB] explains how a low white blood cell count can lead to infection.
Strategies for Improving Infection Control During Cancer Care is a continuing education course for providers who care for patients undergoing cancer treatment.
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Our “Understanding Your Risk for Infection During Chemotherapy” health tip sheet explains what an infection is and who is at risk.
In this blog post, Dr. Lisa Richardson shares what she tells her patients and friends when they ask about the side effects of chemotherapy.
This fact sheet [PDF-576KB] explains that chemotherapy can increase your risk for infection and sepsis.