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Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients

Photo of a nurse injecting a patient

Cancer patients who are treated with chemotherapy are more likely to get infections. One out of every 10 cancer patients who receives chemotherapy gets an infection that requires a hospital visit. Learn how to prevent infections and call your doctor right away if you get sick.

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. 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.

How to Prevent Infections During Chemotherapy

Watch Out for Fever

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.

Take your temperature any time you feel warm, flushed, chilled, or not well. If your temperature is 100.4°F (38°C) or higher for more than one hour, or 101°F (38.3°C) or higher for any length of time, call your doctor right away.

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

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.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Pain in the abdomen or rectum.
  • New onset of pain.

Featured Resources

Neutropenia and Risk for Infection fact sheet

Our Neutropenia and Risk for Infection fact sheet [PDF-174KB] explains how a low white blood cell count can lead to infection.

Having Cancer Is Scary Enough! Don’t Let an Infection Creep In e-card

Send our “Having Cancer Is Scary Enough! Don’t Let an Infection Creep In” e-card to share tips on preventing infections with the ones you love.

Are you getting chemotherapy? Learn how to prevent infections button

Show this button on your Web site, social network profile, or blog. Get the code.

Understanding Your Risk for Infection During Chemotherapy health tip sheet

Our “Understanding Your Risk for Infection During Chemotherapy” health tip sheet explains what an infection is and who is at risk.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind poster

Our “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” poster explains that an infection in people with cancer is a medical emergency.

3 Steps Toward Preventing Infections During Cancer Treatment logo

Find out if you’re at higher risk for getting a low white blood cell count during chemotherapy on the 3 Steps Toward Preventing Infections During Cancer Treatment Web site.

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