Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are at a high risk of infection. In fact, one out of every 10 cancer patients on chemo gets an infection that requires a hospital visit. Chemotherapy damages the immune system by reducing the numbers of infection-fighting white blood cells. With a repressed immune system, these cancer patients receiving chemo are much more susceptible to infection and less able to fight them off.
If you or a loved one are currently undergoing chemotherapy there are three main steps to avoid dangerous infections:
1. Prepare: Watch for Fever
If you are struck with a fever during your chemotherapy treatment, it is considered a medical emergency. Fever is your body’s response to infection, and may be the only warning that you have a life-threatening condition.
Keep a thermometer in a convenient location and take your temperature any time you feel warm, flushed, chilled, or not well. If your temperature is 100.4°F (38°C) or higher for more than one hour, or 101°F (38.3°C) or higher for any length of time, call your doctor right away – even if it happens in the middle of the night. If you end up in the emergency room, tell the person checking you in that you are a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. If you have a fever, you might have an infection. This is a life-threatening condition, and you should be seen quickly.
2. Prevent: Wash Your Hands
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, should clean their hands frequently. Don’t be afraid to ask people to clean their hands!
3. Protect: Know the Signs and Symptoms
During your chemotherapy treatment, you must take infection symptoms seriously. Call your doctor right away if you notice any:
- Fever (this is sometimes the only sign of an infection)
- Chills and sweats
- Change in cough or a new cough
- Sore throat or new mouth sore
- Shortness of breath
- Nasal congestion
- Stiff neck
- Burning or pain with urination
- Unusual vaginal discharge or irritation
- Increased urination
- Redness, soreness, or swelling in any area, including surgical wounds and ports
- Pain in the abdomen or rectum
- New onset of pain
Find out from your doctor when your white blood cell count is likely to be the 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 up to one week.
What do I do if I suspect I have an infection?
This is considered an emergency. Call your doctor right away. Do not wait until morning or the next business day. Make sure you know what number to call during your doctor’s office hours, as well as after hours.
Source: CDC “Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients”