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One of Chemotherapy’s Most Severe Side Effects: What You Can Do To Prevent An Infection During Treatment For Cancer

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog
Michele E. Gaguski MSN RN AOCN CHPN APN-C
Michele E. Gaguski MSN RN AOCN CHPN APN-C

Author: Michele E. Gaguski
MSN RN AOCN CHPN APN-C

As an oncology nurse, I often see anxiety and fear in the eyes of my patients as I  teach them what to expect from their first round of chemotherapy.  Most of the time, patients’ first questions are about the more visible side effects of their treatment:  “Will I lose my hair?” “Will the chemo make me nauseous?”

While all of these are very real and important, none of them may be as life threatening as getting an infection.  Having a low white blood cell count is one of the most serious side effects of chemotherapy.

Here’s how it works:  if you have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy treatment, the chemotherapy drugs work by killing the cancer cells in your body. However, they also kill the good cells, like your infection-fighting white blood cells.  When this happens and your white blood cell count dips too low, your immune system takes a hit as well, increasing your risk of infection.  This condition, called neutropenia, is common after receiving chemotherapy.

It’s important for patients with cancer to know that getting an infection is an emergency and should be treated as one.  In fact, it’s estimated that each year 60,000 cancer patients are hospitalized for chemotherapy-related infections and one patient dies every two hours from this complication.

So, what can patients with cancer do to protect themselves from an infection?  Wash your hands!  Washing your hands might seem like a minimal task; however it is the number 1 thing a patients with cancer can do to prevent a life-threatening infection.  It’s also important to follow these daily tips:

  • Avoid crowds and people who are sick.
  • Do not share food, drink cups, utensils, or other personal items, such as toothbrushes.
  • Shower or bathe daily and use fragrant free lotion to prevent your skin from becoming dry and cracked.
  • Cook meat and eggs all the way through to kill any germs.
  • Wash all raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Protect skin from direct contact with pet bodily waste (urine, stool), by wearing gloves when cleaning up after your pet. Wash hands right away afterwards. Have a friend, or a family member help with this task.
  • Use gloves for gardening, including pond work.
  • Brush your teeth and gums with a soft toothbrush. Let your dentist know you are receiving chemotherapy.
  • Talk with your doctor/nurse practitioner and receive the seasonal flu shot as soon as it is available.

While following the above suggestions will help lower your chances of getting an infection, it won’t totally take away the threat.  So remain aware of what’s going on with your body.  How do you feel? Are you taking your temperature when you’re not feeling well or whenever your doctor or nurse suggested? Have you noticed any changes in your body?

Remember, even a minor infection can quickly become serious. For this reason, it’s important that you call your health care team right away if you have any of the following:

  • Fever- a temperature of 100.4° F or higher for more than 1 hour, or a one-time temperature of 101° F or higher.
  • 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
  • Redness, soreness, or swelling in any area, including surgical wounds and ports
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • New onset of pain
  • Changes in skin, urination or mental status

As an oncology nurse, May is a special month for me.  It’s Oncology Nurses Month, and I always get re-energized by hearing how my peers continue to take this profession to the next level.  And, no matter what time of the year it is, I remain constantly in awe of my patients’ determination, strength and bravery. To all patients and oncology nurses everywhere: thank you!

Learn More about what the CDC is doing to Prevent Infections in Cancer Patients

The Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients program uses practical guidance and resources for patients, caregivers and healthcare providers about steps they can take to prevent infections. The program also provides tools and resources for clinicians. These resources can be downloaded, viewed, copied and distributed without alteration.

Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients content was developed by CDC in collaboration with experts in the fields of oncology and infection control. Amgen provided its oncology expertise to the CDC Foundation which the CDC considered in the development of these important resources. This program was made possible through a CDC Foundation partnership with, and funding from, Amgen.

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog

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