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Defending Against Infections

by Cheryl Perego, MPH, CIC, and Roy Chemaly, MD, MPH, FIDSA, FACP

Wellness image

Did you know that your immune system, the body’s number one defense against infections, is often affected when you have cancer? When you are being treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, your immune system may not be able to put up a good fight against the germs that cause infections. Surgery and other procedures may also put you at higher risk for an infection by breaking the skin, which is another important defense mechanism against infections.

A weakened immune system, along with exposure to healthcare settings, may increase your risk for acquiring germs we call multidrug-resistant organisms, which may not be able to be killed by common antibiotics. These organisms, including MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and VRE (Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus), can cause healthcare-associated infections. They can be transmitted to you from other people, including healthcare workers, or from contaminated objects.

The easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of germs is through good hand washing.

Author of Article photo

Cheryl Perego

The good news is that you can take action to protect yourself. You are your number one infection prevention advocate at home, out in public, and in the healthcare setting.

The easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of germs is through good hand washing. Make sure that you wash thoroughly. Start by wetting your hands with warm water; then use enough soap to make a good lather. Rub your hands together for 15 to 30 seconds. The rubbing action helps to remove the germs from your skin, so make sure you scrub all your fingers, your thumbs, your palms, and the backs of your hands. Don’t forget to scrub under your fingernails, too. That’s where germs love to grow. Finally, rinse your hands with warm water and dry with a clean towel.

You may also use alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands when you are in the hospital or visiting your doctor’s office. Keep a small container of hand gel with you any time you are away from home so you can keep your hands clean. Use a quarter-sized drop of the gel, and rub your hands together until the gel is dry. Follow the same steps listed above, but do not rinse your hands with water or dry them on a paper towel.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Roy Chemaly

At Home
Wash your hands when they are dirty, before you eat or drink, and after blowing your nose, sneezing, or using the restroom. Always keep your hands away from your face – especially your nose, eyes, and mouth. Germs on your hands can get directly into your system through these mucous membranes. Cover your cough or sneeze by using a clean tissue or by coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm. Use good personal hygiene. Don’t share items like toothbrushes, towels, or creams.

Be safe in the kitchen. Always wash your hands before preparing foods. Be especially careful to wash your hands after you touch raw meat. Never share eating utensils, dishes, drinking glasses, or beverage bottles. Follow your doctor’s orders when it comes to eating raw fruits and vegetables. Before eating raw foods, make sure you wash them thoroughly.

Keep your home as clean as possible. Fix leaks and any water damage that may occur as soon as possible. Wet walls, flooring, or other surfaces can be a breeding ground for mold and other germs.

Out in Public
If your doctor tells you that your white blood cell count is low, stay away from crowded places and wear a mask over your nose and mouth when you do leave your home. Avoid construction areas, where large amounts of dust and dirt may be in the air. Stay away from people who have symptoms of cold, flu, or other infections. Remind your family and visitors to cover their coughs and to wash their hands before touching you.

In the Healthcare Setting
Remind all of your healthcare providers to clean their hands with soap and water or a waterless alcohol sanitizer before they touch you. Ask your doctor how your treatment will affect your immune system, what activities you should avoid, and what you can do to protect yourself from infection. Expect your healthcare provider to answer your questions. Take the time to gather information about your cancer, as well as your risks for infection. Learn the steps you can take to protect yourself, and follow them. Expect everyone you encounter to do the same. You have the right to take the necessary steps to safeguard your health.

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Dr. Roy Chemaly is an associate professor of Medicine and the director of the Infection Control Section at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. Cheryl Perego is supervisor of the Infection Control Section at the same institution.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.