(RxWiki News) Fighting cancer often demands surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three, all of which have risk factors of their own. These risk factors include infections.
Cancer is one of the most serious — yet increasingly common — diagnoses a person can receive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this year, about 18 million people will be diagnosed with cancer and 9 million will die from the disease worldwide.
Patients receiving chemotherapy face a high risk for infection and illness because the treatment depletes the body’s white blood cell count. This condition is called neutropenia. For patients who have it, any infection has the potential to be life-threatening.
Here are some ways those receiving chemotherapy can protect themselves from illness and infection.
Understand Your Risk
An infection happens when germs enter and multiply in the body, causing illness, tissue damage or disease, according to Preventing Infections During Cancer Treatment, a website developed in part by the CDC.
Infections can be caused by bacteria (small microorganisms that enter the body through the air, water, soil or food) or viruses (simple microorganisms passed from person to person). Common bacterial infections include pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Common viral infections include the common cold, herpes and the flu.
Both cancer and chemotherapy damage the immune system, which is the body's first defense against infection, by reducing the number of infection-fighting white blood cells. Because the body has a harder time fighting off infections and germs, cancer patients should minimize their exposure to risky behaviors, foods and situations.
Practice Preventive Health
1) Wash your hands. The CDC recommends that those receiving chemotherapy not only wash their hands frequently but also insist that household members do the same. It is important to wash your hands before, during and after cooking food; before eating; after helping a child; after touching a pet; after touching trash; and after any other time your hands might have contacted germs.
2) Take extra precautions seven to 12 days after chemotherapy. Avoid going out in public seven to 12 days after receiving chemotherapy. This is when the immune system is the weakest. Although it’s generally fine to go out in public at other times, those receiving chemotherapy are advised to avoid crowds, people who are sick and going out during flu season. The CDC recommends that patients ask their doctors when their immune systems may be most compromised and plan accordingly.
3) Eat safely. Good nutrition is also important to recovery. Be sure to follow proper food-handling techniques to avoid foodborne illness, such as fully cooking meats and eggs and washing and peeling fruits and vegetables.
4) Receive a flu shot. Patients undergoing chemotherapy can also practice prevention by getting a seasonal flu shot. Their immune systems are highly susceptible to the flu and may have trouble fighting it off.
Know the Signs
For cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, vigilance is crucial. Take note of any changes in your health, and be prepared to call a doctor right away. A fever is the body’s way of trying to fight off infection and is sometimes the only warning sign.
Call your doctor immediately if any new symptoms arise. Symptoms can include fever, chills, sweats, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, sore throat or cough, painful or increased urination, redness, soreness or swelling of an area and general pain, among others. All of these symptoms could signal a potentially life-threatening infection.