can make you more likely to get infections. This happens because most anticancer drugs affect the bone marrow, making it harder to make white blood cells, the cells that fight many types of infections. Your doctor will check your blood cell count often while you are getting chemotherapy.
There are medications that help speed the recovery of white blood cells, shortening the time when the white blood count is very low. These medications are called colony stimulating factors (CSF). Raising the white blood cell count greatly lowers the risk of serious infection.
If you are at a high risk for getting an infection, your doctor may recommend prophylactic medications, such as antibiotics or antifungal drugs to help prevent them before they occur.
Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms:
- Fever (over 100.5°F [38°C])
- Redness, swelling, or tenderness, especially around a wound or incision area or IV port
- Ear ache, headache, or stiff neck
- Sinus pain or pressure
- Stomach ache
- Loose bowel movements
- Frequent urgency to urinate or a burning feeling when you urinate
- Unusual vaginal discharge or itching
- Blisters on the lips or skin
Report any signs of infection to your doctor right away, even if it is in the middle of the night. This is especially important when your white blood cell count is low. Be sure to check with your doctor before you take any fever-reducing medication.
Many infections come from bacteria normally found on your skin and in your mouth, intestines, and genital tract. Sometimes, the cause of an infection may not be known. Even if you take extra care, you still may get an infection. But here are some things you can do:
- Wash your hands often during the day. Be sure to wash your hands before you eat, after you use the bathroom, and after touching animals.
- Use wipes to clean places that you touch a lot, like the telephone receiver or door knobs.
Clean your rectal area gently but thoroughly after each bowel movement. If the area becomes irritated, tell your healthcare team. Also, check with your team before using enemas or suppositories.
Stay away from people who have illnesses you can catch, such as a cold or the
flu. In addition, stay away from anyone who has received a vaccine that contains a live virus, such as the nasal flu or chickenpox vaccine.
- Talk to your healthcare team before getting any vaccines.
- Try to avoid crowds. For example, go shopping or to the movies when the stores or theaters are least likely to be busy. Consider wearing a breathing mask.
- Be careful with your skin by:
- Not cutting or damaging the cuticles around your nails
- Using an electric shaver instead of a razor
- Being gentle when using sharp objects, like scissor, needles, or knives
- Not picking at pimples or other skin irritations
- Using lotion on dry skin
- Taking good care of any cuts or scrapes by cleaning them and applying a bandage if needed
- Using warm (not hot) water to clean yourself and gently patting your skin dry
- Take good care of your mouth and gums by brushing your teeth with a soft toothbrush.
- If you have pets, ask a family member to change the litter box, clean up after the dog, and care for the fish tank, and bird cage.
- Wear protective gloves when gardening or cleaning up after others, especially small children.
- Store foods at the right temperature. Do not consume food or drinks that are spoiled. Also, avoid eating raw or undercooked food.
Chemotherapy and you. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemotherapy-and-you.pdf. Published June 2011. Accessed March 5, 2014.
Infections in people with cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/002871-pdf.pdf. Accessed March 5, 2014.
Toxicities of chemotherapeutic agents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated February 11, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2014.
Understanding chemotherapy: a guide for patients and families. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003025-pdf.pdf. Accessed March 5, 2014.
Last reviewed March 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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