How To Prevent Infection During Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy patients should take preventative steps to avoid infection, CDC says

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

Cancer is one of the most serious, yet increasingly common, diagnoses a person can receive. Fighting the disease often demands surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three, all of which have risk factors of their own.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year, about 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer and 8 million die from the disease worldwide.

Patients receiving chemotherapy are particularly at risk for infection and illness — as the treatment depletes the body’s white blood cell count. This condition is called neutropenia and, for patients who have it, any infection has the potential to be life-threatening.

Here are some ways that current or former cancer patients who have undergone 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 in Cancer Patients, a website developed in part by the CDC.

Infections can be caused by bacteria (small microorganisms that may 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 Preventative Health

The CDC urges chemotherapy patients not only to wash their hands frequently, but also to insist that household members do the same. Hands should be washed before, during and after cooking food; before eating; after helping a child; after touching a pet; after touching trash and after any other time that the hands may have contacted germs.

Patients should avoid going out in public between seven and 12 days after receiving chemotherapy — when their immune systems are the weakest. Although it’s generally fine to go out in public at other times, chemotherapy patients should avoid crowds, people who are sick and going out during flu season. The CDC recommends patients ask their doctors when their immune systems may be most compromised and plan accordingly.

Good nutrition is also important to recovery. If a cancer patient feels like eating, the CDC says they certainly should. Patients should make sure to follow proper handling techniques to avoid foodborne illness, such as fully cooking meats and eggs and washing and peeling fruits and vegetables.

A full list of food and kitchen safety tips can be found online at

Patients undergoing chemotherapy can also practice prevention by getting a seasonal flu shot, as their immune systems are highly susceptible and may have difficulty fighting it off.

Know The Signs

For cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, vigilance is crucial. A patient should be aware of any changes in his or her 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.

A patient should call his or her doctor immediately if any new symptoms arise. Symptoms can include fever, chills and sweats; vomiting; diarrhea; shortness of breath; sore throat or cough; painful or increased urination; redness, soreness or swelling of an area; or pain, among others. All of these symptoms could signal a potentially life-threatening infection.

Review Date: 
January 26, 2016