Infection in Cancer Patients

What is an infection?

Infection is invasion of the body by disease-causing organisms. These organisms include bacteria, virus, and fungi. Ordinarily, a healthy immune system can effectively fight off these pathogens. In severe cases, your physicians can prescribe antimicrobial agents to treat and eliminate most of these organisms.

Why are cancer patients more prone to infections?

The immune system of a cancer patient is often rendered ineffective by multiple causes. The cancer itself affects how immune system functions. Various cancer treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy can also greatly affect the immune system. Poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and stress also contribute in weakening the immune system. Foreign bodies such as a central line can also be portals of entry for infectious organisms.

Preventing infection in cancer patients, especially during period of low blood counts:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, blowing your nose, coughing, or
  • Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands when you are out and about.
  • Use moist cleaning wipes to clean surfaces and things that you touch, such as door handles, ATM or credit card
    keypads, and any items that are used by other people.
  • Avoid large crowds of people such as school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings especially
    when your white blood cell counts are low, or during the flu season.
  • Stay away from anyone with a fever, the flu, or other infection.
  • Receive your flu shot every fall. Encourage other members of your household to get it, too. DO NOT get the
    nasal mist flu vaccine.
  • Maintain good daily hygiene. Be sure to wash your feet, groin, armpits, and other moist, sweaty areas.
  • Do not wade, play, or swim in ponds, lakes, rivers, or water parks.
  • Do not use hot tubs.
  • Wear shoes at all times – in the hospital, outdoors, and at home. This helps you avoid injury and keep germs
    off your feet.
  • If you cut or scrape your skin, clean the area right away with soap and warm water. Cover the area with a clean
    bandage to protect it. If the bandage gets wet or dirty, clean the area and put on a new bandage. Tell your
    doctor if you notice redness, swelling, pain, or tenderness.
  • Prevent constipation and straining to move your bowels (poop) by drinking 2 quarts of fluid each day.
  • Do not keep fresh flowers or live plants in your bedroom.
  • Do not touch soil that may contain feces (poop) of animals or people.
  • Do not share bath towels or drinking glasses with anyone, including family members.

Call your Doctor Right away if you have:

  • Fever of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher. Ask your doctor or nurse how many times a day you should take your temperature
  • Chills
  • Cough or sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Headache or bad sinus pain
  • Stiff or sore neck
  • Skin rash
  • Sores or white coating in your mouth or on your tongue
  • Swelling or redness anywhere. Watch for swelling or soreness if you have a catheter.
  • Bloody or cloudy urine
  • Pain or burning when you urinate

Remember, infections can be life threatening to cancer patients. Although early recognition and treatment will help mitigate severe consequences, PREVENTION is better than CURE!

Courtesy of:
Dr. Smita Bhaskaran, M.D., Faculty at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Amarillo, TX
Dr. Alex Huang, MD, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland, OH

American Cancer Society. Infections in people with cancer.
National Cancer Institute. Managing Chemotherapy Side Effect: Infection.
CureSearch – For Children’s cancer