If you are receiving chemotherapy, you may be at risk for getting an infection. This risk is highest when your white blood cell count is at its lowest. Getting an infection can be a life-threatening complication of chemotherapy.
You are likely to be at risk for infection between 7 and 12 days after you have received each chemotherapy treatment – and possibly lasting up to one week – when your white blood cells are at their lowest numbers.
Here are some practical measures you can take to lower your risk of getting an infection.
Wash Your Hands
One of the best ways to keep yourself from getting sick is to keep your hands clean. You should also encourage friends and family members to keep their hands clean. You should wash your hands with soap and water at these times:
- Before, during, and after cooking food
- Before you eat
- After going to the bathroom
- After changing diapers or helping child to use the bathroom
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching your pet or cleaning up after your pet
- After touching trash
- Before and after treating a wound or caring for your catheter, port, or other access device.
Take Care of Your Mouth
Your cancer medication can reduce the number of infection-fighting cells in your blood for a short period, and your body’s ability to combat infection may be lowered during this time. Because of this, you are more likely to get an infection in the lining of your mouth. The most common of these infections is a fungal infection called thrush. Thrush usually appears as a white coating in the mouth and on the tongue.
There are times that the medicine you are taking may cause your gums to become sore and bleed. Your medicine may also cause your mouth to become very sore, causing small ulcers to form. This soreness is called mucositis, and it can be very painful.
Just as your medicine may affect the lining of the mouth, it can also have an impact on the glands that make your saliva. This can cause you to have dry mouth, which may make it hard for you to swallow food and may change the taste of the food you eat.
There are a number of things you can do to keep your mouth healthy:
- Brush your teeth and clean your dentures when you wake up, before you go to bed, and after every meal using a soft toothbrush.
- Get a new toothbrush every three months.
- Use the mouthwash your doctor or nurse recommends to avoid getting mouth sores. If you do develop mouth sores, speak to your doctor about whether to substitute mouthwash for salt- or plain-water mouth rinses, as these will cause less discomfort.
- Check with your doctor or nurse about flossing your teeth because your chemotherapy may increase the chances of your gums bleeding when you floss.
- Avoid using toothpicks.
- Try to stay away from things that may irritate your mouth: alcohol, tobacco, spicy food, garlic, onion, vinegar, crunchy foods, and acidic drinks (such as orange and grapefruit juice).
- Keep lips moist by using lip balm.
- Try to drink at least eight glasses of fluid a day.
- Check your mouth daily for redness, swelling, sores, white patches, or bleeding, and let your doctor or nurse know if any of these signs of infection are present.
- Check with your doctor or nurse before having any dental work done.
Know the Signs and Symptoms of Infection
- Fever (this is sometimes the only sign of an infection)
- Chills and sweats
- Change in cough or 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
- Changes in skin, urination, or
- mental status
Protect Your Skin
The medicines that you take to treat your cancer may cause changes in your skin. These changes, like dry skin and irritation, can lead to openings in the skin where germs can enter and infection can set in. Making a few changes to your daily hygiene routine as soon as you begin chemotherapy, and throughout your treatment, can help to keep your skin healthy and lower your risk for infection:
- Bathe every day with warm water and mild soap.
- Avoid soaking in spas or hot tubs.
- Use a soft towel to gently wash your skin.
- Be sure to clean your feet, groin, underarms, and other sweaty areas well.
- After bathing, do not rub your skin with your towel. Instead, pat it dry.
- Do not share your bath towel with other family members.
- Use unscented lotion or moisturizing cream on your skin after it has dried.
While you are going through chemotherapy, you need to protect your skin from cuts and scrapes because these are easy ways for germs to enter your body. If you follow a few simple steps, you can protect yourself from injury and infection:
- Use an electric razor instead of a blade when shaving to help prevent nicks.
- Be careful when handling sharp items.
- Use caution when exercising to avoid grazing or scraping your skin.
- Be careful when walking on wet or slippery surfaces to avoid falling and scraping your skin.
- Do not cut, tear, or bite your cuticles.
- Avoid getting manicures and pedicures.
- Do not squeeze or scratch pimples.
- Wear clothing that is appropriate for the type of activity you plan to do (for example, long sleeves and gloves when gardening to protect yourself from cuts and scrapes).
Watch Out for Fever!
You should take your temperature any time you feel warm, flushed, chilled, or not well. If you have a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher for more than one hour, or a one-time temperature of 101°F or higher, call your doctor immediately, even if it is the middle of the night. Do not wait until the office reopens before you call. You should also:
- Find out from your doctor when your white blood cell count is likely to be at its lowest, since this is when you’re most at risk for infection.
- Keep a working thermometer in a convenient location and know how to use it.
- Keep your doctor’s phone numbers with you at all times. Make sure you know what number to call when their office is open and closed.
- If you have to go to the emergency room, it’s important that you 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 can be a life-threatening condition, and you should be seen in a short amount of time.
For more tips on preventing infections during cancer treatment, visit PreventCancerInfections.org.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control, PreventCancerInfections.org
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2016.