Cancer treatment - preventing infection
When you have cancer, you may be at higher risk for infection. Some cancers and cancer treatments weaken your immune system. This makes it harder for your body to fight off germs, viruses, and bacteria. If you get an infection, it can quickly become serious and be hard to treat. In some cases, you may need to go to the hospital for treatment. So it is important to learn how to prevent and treat any infections before they spread.
Chemotherapy - preventing infection; Radiation - preventing infection; Bone marrow transplant - preventing infection; Cancer treatment - immunosuppression
How Having Cancer Increases Infection Risk
As part of your immune system, your white blood cells help fight infection. White blood cells are made in your bone marrow. Some types of cancer, such as leukemia, and some treatments including bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy affect your bone marrow and immune system. This makes it harder for your body to make new white blood cells and increases your infection risk.
Your health care provider will check your white blood cell count during your treatment. When levels of certain white blood cells drop too low, it is called neutropenia. Often this is a short-lived side effect of cancer treatment. Your provider may give you medicines to help prevent infection if this occurs. But, you should also take some precautions.
Other risk factors for infection in people with cancer include:
Ways to Prevent Infection
There are many things you can do to help prevent infection. Here are some tips:
Know How to Spot an Infection
It is important to know the symptoms of an infection so you can call your provider right away. They include:
DO NOT take acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or any medicine that reduces a fever without first talking with your provider.
When to Call Your Doctor
During or right after cancer treatment, call your provider right away if you have any of the signs of infection mentioned above. Getting an infection during cancer treatment is an emergency.
If you go to an emergency room, tell the staff right away that you have cancer. You shouldn't sit in the waiting room a long time because you may catch an infection.
American Cancer Society website. Infections in people with cancer. www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/infections/infections-in-people-with-cancer.html. Updated February 25, 2015. Accessed December 17, 2018.
Freifeld AG, Kaul DR. Infection in the patient with cancer. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 36.
National Cancer Institute website. Chemotherapy and you: support for people with cancer. www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/chemotherapy-and-you.pdf. Updated June 2011. Accessed December 17, 2018.
National Cancer Institute website. Managing chemotherapy side effects: infection. www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemo-side-effects/infection.pdf. Updated February 2012. Accessed December 17, 2018.
Review Date: 10/19/2018
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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