Cancer Treatment Side Effect: Infections

Chemotherapy 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 (WBCs), the cells that fight many types of infections. Your doctor will check your blood cell count often while you are getting chemotherapy. There are medicines that help speed the recovery of white blood cells, shortening the time when the white blood count is very low. These medicines are called colony stimulating factors (CSF). Raising the white blood cell count greatly lowers the risk of serious infection.

Most 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 there are some things you can do.

How can I help prevent infections?

  • Wash your hands often during the day. Be sure to wash them before you eat, after you use the bathroom, and after touching animals.


  • Clean your rectal area gently but thoroughly after each bowel movement. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice if the area becomes irritated or if you have hemorrhoids. Also, check with your doctor before using enemas or suppositories.


  • Stay away from people who have illnesses you can catch, such as a cold, the flu, measles, or chicken pox.


  • Try to avoid crowds. For example, go shopping or to the movies when the stores or theaters are least likely to be busy.


  • Stay away from children who recently have received "live virus" vaccines such as chicken pox and oral polio, since they may be contagious to people with a low blood cell count. Call your doctor or local health department if you have any questions.


  • Do not cut or tear the cuticles of your nails.


  • Be careful not to cut or nick yourself when using scissors, needles, or knives.


  • Use an electric shaver instead of a razor to prevent breaks or cuts in your skin.


  • Maintain good mouth care.


  • Do not squeeze or scratch pimples.


  • Take a warm (not hot) bath, shower, or sponge bath every day. Pat your skin dry using a light touch. Do not rub too hard.


  • Use lotion or oil to soften and heal your skin if it becomes dry and cracked.


  • Clean cuts and scrapes right away and daily until healed with warm water, soap, and an antiseptic.


  • Avoid contact with animal litter boxes and waste, bird cages, and fish tanks.


  • Avoid standing water, for example, bird baths, flower vases, or humidifiers.


  • Wear protective gloves when gardening or cleaning up after others, especially small children.


  • Do not get any immunizations, such as flu or pneumonia shots, without checking with your doctor first.


  • Do not eat raw fish, seafood, meat, or eggs.
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. If you have a fever, do not take aspirin, acetaminophen, or any other medicine to bring your temperature down without checking with your doctor first.

Symptoms of Infection

Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Fever over 100° F or 38° C.
  • Chills, especially shaking chills.
  • Sweating.
  • Loose bowel movements.
  • Frequent urgency to urinate or a burning feeling when you urinate.
  • A severe cough or sore throat.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or itching.
  • Redness, swelling, or tenderness, especially around a wound, sore, ostomy, pimple, rectal area or catheter site.
  • Sinus pain or pressure.
  • Earaches, headaches, or stiff neck.
  • Blisters on the lips or skin.
  • Mouth sores.

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. If you have a fever, do not take aspirin, acetaminophen, or any other medicine to bring your temperature down without checking with your doctor first.

For more information about cancer therapy side effects, and coping with them, please read the  "Chemotherapy and Cancer Treatment, Coping with Side Effects" article.

SOURCE: National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov)


Last Editorial Review: 8/8/2006