How to prevent infections during chemotherapy
Chemotherapy can be a lifesaving cancer treatment. But, in addition to killing cancer cells, it can destroy infection-fighting white blood cells—making your immune system weaker than usual.
If you're undergoing chemo, ask your healthcare team how to lower your risk of infections. There are many steps you can take. Scroll on to learn about a few of them.
WASH YOUR HANDS OFTEN
Good times to wash include before eating and after activities that could expose you to germs, like using the restroom, taking out the trash or being in a public place. Use soap and water—or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, if you're away from a sink. You should feel free to ask your family and visitors to wash their hands too. Learn more about the right way to wash.
PRACTICE GOOD ORAL HYGIENE
To help prevent mouth infections, gently brush your teeth at least twice a day with a soft toothbrush. Ask your healthcare team if it's OK to use dental floss or a water flosser to clean between your teeth.
KEEP YOUR SKIN CLEAN
Bathe daily. Take care to clean infection-prone areas, such as your feet, groin and armpits. Gently pat your skin dry with a clean towel.
AVOID CUTS AND SCRAPES
Be very careful to avoid cuts and scrapes. Even a nick can let germs in. To protect your skin:
- Wear shoes at all times (even indoors).
- Use caution with any sharp objects.
- Shave with an electric razor instead of a blade.
- Wear gloves when gardening.
- Avoid getting manicures or pedicures.
TAKE PRECAUTIONS WITH PETS
Pets can carry germs. To be safe, avoid any play that may cause your pet to scratch or bite you. Wash your hands with soapy water after touching a pet. If possible, have someone else pick up your pet's waste or change the litterbox. If you must clean up after a pet, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands immediately.
PRACTICE FOOD SAFETY
Take extra care when preparing and eating food. For starters, wash your hands before handling food. Cook meats and eggs thoroughly to kill any harmful bacteria. Ask your doctor if it's OK to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, as long as you wash them carefully before you cut, peel or eat them.
You can go out in public, but stay away from large groups of people, such as in busy shopping areas or at social events. Avoiding crowds is especially important during cold and flu season, when more germs are circulating. If you must be around crowds, wear a mask.
STAY UP-TO-DATE ON VACCINES
Get a seasonal flu shot each year. Flu shots (not the nasal spray flu vaccine) do not contain live viruses, so they are safer for people with weakened immune systems. Ask your doctor if you need any other vaccines in addition to a flu shot.
WATCH FOR SIGNS OF INFECTION
Without treatment, infections can make you very sick or disrupt your cancer treatment. Ask your doctor about signs or symptoms to look for and learn what to do if you spot them. Fever is one of the most common signs of infection. Take your temperature if you feel warm, flushed, chilled or sick. Call your doctor or go to an emergency room if you run a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher.
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- American Cancer Society. "Watching for and Preventing Infections." https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/preventing-infections-in-people-with-cancer.html.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Watch Out for Fever." https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/preventinfections/fever.htm.