Information for Patients and Caregivers
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.
What Is an Infection?
You get an infection when germs enter your body and multiply, causing illness, organ and tissue damage, or disease. Bacteria and viruses cause infections.
- You can get bacteria from the air, water, soil, or food during the course of your medical treatment. Most bacteria come from your own body. Common bacterial infections include pneumonia, bronchitis, and ear infections.
- Viruses are passed from one person to another. Common viral infections include the common cold, herpes, and the flu.
How Does the Body Normally Fight Infections?
The immune system helps your body protect itself from getting an infection. Cancer and chemotherapy can damage this system, reducing your numbers of infection-fighting white blood cells and making it harder for your body to fight infections. An infection can lead to sepsis, the body’s overwhelming and life-threatening response to an infection.
How Can I Prevent Infections During Chemotherapy?
- Prepare: Watch Out for Fever
- Prevent: Clean Your Hands
- Protect: Know the Signs and Symptoms of Infection
What Should I Do If I Think I Have an Infection?
Call your doctor right away, even if this happens in the middle of the night. This is considered an emergency. Don’t wait until morning. Keep your doctor’s phone numbers with you at all times. Make sure you know what number to call during your doctor’s office hours, as well as after hours.
- Neutropenia and Risk for Infection: What You Need to Know fact sheet [PDF-174KB]
- Cancer, Infection, and Sepsis fact sheet [PDF-576KB]
- Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Infection [PDF-707KB] (National Cancer Institute)
- Everyday Preventive Actions That Can Help Fight Germs, Like Flu [PDF-2.1MB]
- Prevent Infections During Chemotherapy podcast