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Infections Are Serious Threats for People with Cancer

Learn How to Protect Yourself

by Linda Graviss, MT, CIC, and Roy Chemaly, MD, MPH, FIDSA, FACP

About Coping

Good handwashing is the easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of germs.

Did you know that your body’s number-one defense against infections is often compromised when you have cancer? Both chemo­therapy and radiation therapy can weaken your immune system, lessening its abil­ity to put up a good fight against the germs that cause infections. Moreover, surgery and other medical procedures break or damage the skin – your body’s primary infection defense – increasing your risk for developing infection.

Your weakened immune system and damaged skin barrier, combined with increased exposure to healthcare set­tings during cancer treatment, also puts you at risk for acquiring nasty germs like MRSA and C. diff that can’t easily be treated with common antibiotics. However, there is good news. You can take action to protect yourself.

The most effective way to prevent the spread of germs is also the simplest – good handwashing. It’s important to wash your hands thoroughly and often. (See sidebar for an explanation of the proper technique.)

Be especially careful in the kitchen. It harbors more bacteria than any other room in the house.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Roy Chemaly

You can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel to clean your hands when getting to a sink is inconvenient, such as during a doctor’s office visit. Use a quarter-sized drop of the gel and rub your hands together (just as you would when washing with soap and water) until the gel is dry. It’s a good idea to always carry a small container of hand sanitizer with you whenever you are away from home.

Protect Yourself at Home
No matter how often you clean your house, you won’t be able to completely rid it of germs. So it’s important to limit your exposure.

Wash your hands whenever 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. Germs on your hands can get directly into your system through the mucous membranes in your nose, eyes, and mouth. When you have to cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a clean tissue, or make a habit of coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm. Also, don’t share personal hygiene items like toothbrushes, towels, makeup, or creams.

Author of Article photo

Linda Graviss

Be especially careful in the kitchen. It harbors more bacteria than any other room in the house. Always wash your hands thoroughly before preparing foods, and be extra vigilant about washing them after handling raw meat. Never share eating utensils, dishes, or drink­ing glasses. Follow your doctor’s orders about eating raw fruits and vegetables. If you are allowed to eat raw foods, make sure to wash them thoroughly.

Keep your home as clean as pos­sible. Fix leaks and any water damage that occurs right away, as wet surfaces can be a breeding ground for mold, mildew, and other germs. When you have visitors, remind them to cover their coughs and wash their hands upon entering your home.

Fight Germs by Washing Your Hands …
the Right Way

Step 1: Start by wetting your hands with warm water.
Step 2: Apply enough soap to form a good lather.
Step 3: Rub your hands together for 15 to 30 seconds. The rubbing action helps to remove the germs from your skin.
Step 4: Make sure you scrub all your fingers, your thumbs, your palms, and the backs of your hands.
Step 5: Don’t forget to scrub under your fingernails. That’s where germs love to grow.
Step 6: Rinse your hands with warm water.
Step 7: Dry with a clean towel.

Protect Yourself in Public
If 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. Steer clear of con­struction areas where large amounts of dust and dirt may be in the air. Avoid contact with people who have symp­toms of cold, flu, or other infections.

Protect Yourself in Healthcare Settings
A clean healthcare environ­ment is important for all people, but especially for those who are undergoing cancer treatment. Germs can live on environmental surfaces and medical equipment in hospital rooms for a long period of time. In addition to the cur­rent standard disinfection practices, new technologies are being developed to decrease infection-causing germs in healthcare settings, which is good news for cancer survivors. However, it’s still important to educate yourself about your hospital’s disinfection policies and to ensure that any health­care provider you encounter cleans their hands with soap and water or a waterless alcohol sanitizer before coming in contact with you.

Work with your doctor to create an infection defense strategy. Ask him or her how your treatment will affect your immune system, what activities you should avoid, and what you can do to protect yourself from infection. You are your own best defense against infection. Learn the steps to protect yourself – and follow them.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Chemaly is a professor of medicine, a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American College of Phy­sicians, and the director of the Infection Control Section at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. Linda Graviss is the manager of the Infection Control Section at MD Anderson and is board certified in Infection Control.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2015.