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Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients

Photo of a cancer patient

Learn how to prevent infections. Call your doctor right away if you get a fever or feel sick during your chemotherapy 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 to Prevent 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.

3 Steps Toward Preventing Infections During Cancer Treatment: Prepare, Prevent, Protect

Learn your risk for getting a low white blood cell count and infections during chemotherapy at PreventCancerInfections.org.

Clean Your Hands Often

Clean hands help prevent infections. Many diseases are spread by not cleaning 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 clean their hands often. Don’t be afraid to ask people to clean 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 symptoms of an infection, such as a fever, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion, redness or swelling in any area, diarrhea, or vomiting.

Featured Resources

Neutropenia and Risk for Infection fact sheet

This fact sheet [PDF-174KB] explains how a low white blood cell count can lead to infection.

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 ... not this time! Did you know one of the most dangerous side effects of chemotherapy cannot be seen?

In this blog post, Dr. Lisa Richardson shares what she tells her patients and friends when they ask about the side effects of chemotherapy.

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