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Tips to Prevent Post Chemo Infection

An infection occurs when germs enter the human body and multiply, causing illness, organ and tissue damage, or disease. Cancer and chemotherapy can damage the immune system, reducing the number of infection-fighting white blood cells and making it harder for your body to fight infection.


Infection Risk Factors 

The risk of developing an infection during chemotherapy is highest one week to 12 days after each session, in a period often referred to as nadir (meaning low point). Chemo decreases white blood cells, the body's first line of defense against infection. Platelets, which help clot the blood, are also lower, increasing the risk of bleeding. This low period usually lasts as long as one week, but varies slightly depending on the type of chemo drug or combination of drugs used. With stronger chemotherapy drugs, more white blood cells are killed, and the period in which your immune system is compromised may last longer. Additional infection risk factors include the following:


  • Age 65 and older

  • Being female

  • Inability to care for yourself or bed-bound

  • Unintentional major weight loss

  • Co-occurring conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, autoimmune diseases, liver disease, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema

  • Cancer impacting the blood or lymph nodes (e.g. leukemia)

  • Metastatic cancer (cancer spread to other parts of the body)

  • Past chemotherapy or radiation

  • Receiving more than one chemotherapy drug

  • Low white blood cell count in the past



Preventing Infection During Chemotherapy

Ask your doctor when your white blood cell count is at its lowest, since this is when you are at the highest risk of developing an infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests following these three chemo precautions to help prevent infection.


  1. Prepare: Watch Out for Fever

  2. Prevent: Clean Your Hands

  3. Protect: Know the Signs and Symptoms of Infection


Prepare: Reduced white blood cell count is called neutropenia. Neutropenic fever impacts an estimated 5-25% of patients receiving chemotherapy.Keep a working thermometer and your doctor’s regular and emergency office numbers in a convenient location. Fever may be the only sign of infection, and this can be life-threatening during chemotherapy treatment, so requires immediate medical attention. Take your temperature anytime you feel warm, flushed, chilled, or ill. If you have a fever, especially if it is 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, call your doctor right away, even if it’s in the middle of the night. If you go to the emergency room, clearly communicate you are undergoing chemotherapy. A healthy patient with a fever and cough might get a flu or throat swab, chest X-ray, given acetaminophen, and sent home to rest. A cancer patient with the same symptoms needs a more intense evaluation to identify the source of their infection and may be treated with antibiotics or even hospitalized.


Prevent: Many diseases are spread by not washing hands thoroughly. This can be dangerous when you are on chemo because your body’s ability to fight off infections is seriously compromised. You need to wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, if soap and water aren’t available. It is also important to ask members of your household, doctors, nurses, and anyone else who comes in contact with you to wash their hands frequently.


Hand Washing Tips: You need to wash hands before eating and before, during, and after cooking food. It is also essential to clean hands before and after treating a cut or wound or caring for your catheter, port, or other medical devices.


You Should Wash Hands After:


  • Going to the bathroom

  • Changing diapers or helping a child use the bathroom

  • Blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

  • Petting, playing with, or cleaning up after your pet

  • Touching or throwing away trash


Observe & Protect

Being well-informed about your health condition is always smart. When undergoing chemo, knowing the signs of infection may prove lifesaving. Possible signs of infection include:


  • Fever

  • 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 discharge or irritation

  • Increased urination

  • Redness, soreness, or swelling in any area, including surgical wounds and ports

  • Diarrhea

  • Vomiting

  • Pain in the abdomen

  • New onset of pain


Additional Prevention Tips


  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet to prevent major weight loss.

  • It’s best to steer clear of raw foods such as fish, seafood, meat, and eggs, all of which pose a high risk of causing illness. If you do select these foods, avoid contaminating kitchen surfaces, cutting boards, and cooking utensils with their liquids.

  • Brush teeth after meals and before bedtime, using an extra-soft toothbrush gentle on the gums. Ask your doctor if you can floss during chemo.

  • Keep your skin hydrated and moisturized because dry, cracked skin is more susceptible to infections. Do not squeeze/scratch pimples or bite/tear nail cuticles.

  • Take a warm bath or shower every day and gently clean your rectal area after using the toilet. Tell your doctor if you develop hemorrhoids or dry irritated skin.

  • Avoid anyone with a cold, the flu, chicken pox, measles, or other contagious illnesses. Also steer clear of people who recently received a "live virus" vaccination (e.g. chicken pox and polio).

  • Avoid situations putting you at risk of accidents and injuries.

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