A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Reduce infection risk during cancer treatment

Avoid Infections graphic

White blood cell count can drop to very low levels during cancer treatment, which increases your risk for infection.

Cancer and cancer treatment can weaken your body’s immune system and increase your risk of infection.

It’s harder for your bone marrow to produce new white blood cells, which fight bacteria and viruses that make you sick.

People who have hematologic cancers like leukemia and multiple myeloma are at greatest risk for infection. However, people with all types of cancer and who are on chemotherapy are highly susceptible, said Robyn Smith, an oncology nurse practitioner at Marshfield Clinic.

Infections can begin in almost any part of your body. They most often start in the mouth, skin, lungs, urinary tract and rectum.

Infection prevention tips

“While there isn’t much you can do to raise your white blood cell count on your own, you can take steps at home to prevent infection,” Smith said.

She recommends these tips for staying healthy during your cancer care journey:

  • Stay away from crowds and sick people. Visit public places like grocery stores during off-peak hours.
  • Wash hands frequently and use hand sanitizer, especially after touching ATMs, door handles and menus. Always wash hands before and after eating and after using the bathroom, coughing or sneezing.
  • Maintain good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth after meals and before bed using a soft toothbrush. Use alcohol-free mouthwash and avoid flossing unless your cancer care provider says it’s okay.
  • Maintain good skin care. Use electric shavers instead of razors to prevent broken skin. Avoid manicures and pedicures.
  • Use safe food handling practices. Wash fruits and veggies before eating or cutting them. Cut produce at home rather than buying pre-cut items. Wash cans with soap and water before opening. Clean counters and cutting boards with hot soapy water or a bleach solution.
  • Wear gloves while gardening or cleaning pet waste and wash your hands afterward. Ask a family member or friend to help if possible.
  • Talk to your cancer care team before getting vaccinations.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat nutritious foods and stay well hydrated.

“Make sure you come to all your blood draws and appointments,” Smith said. “Your white blood cell count is always being checked. If it’s too low, we can hold treatment, give a lower dose or inject medication, called growth factor, to help your bone marrow produce more white blood cells.”

Look for signs of infection

“People with low white blood cell counts may not have classic signs of infection,” Smith said.

Contact your cancer care team if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Fever greater than 100.5 F
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sinus pain and pressure
  • Belly pain
  • Cloudy or bloody urine
  • Draining, swelling or soreness around catheters and ports

Talk to your doctor before taking aspirin, ibuprofen or Tylenol to relieve symptoms. You may need to give a blood sample first.

You should know how to reach your doctor or a triage nurse after hours and on weekends to notify them of possible infection.

Related Shine365 stories:

Chemo brain: A real, manageable cancer treatment side effect 

Cancer survivors, be extra careful in the sun

A guide: Cancer stages, terms and side effects

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