Oncology: Preventing Infections

Chemotherapy can make your body less able to fight off infection. This happens because treatment reduces the number of white blood cells (infection fighters) in your body. To help prevent infections, follow the tips below.

Closeup of hands in sink with running water. Hands are covered with soap suds.

Know your nadir

The nadir is the time during your chemotherapy cycle when you have the fewest white blood cells. The length of your nadir and when it occurs depend on the drugs you are taking. Each drug has its own nadir. Talk with your doctor or nurse about your nadir period. Then take extra precautions to prevent infection at that time.

Protect yourself

  • Keep your hands clean. To reduce your risk of infection, bathe daily and wash your hands often throughout the day. For best results, lather them with soap for at least 15 seconds. Wash your hands before eating, after spending time in public places, and after using the bathroom.

  • Avoid some foods. Limit your risk. Don’t eat uncooked or undercooked meat or fish. You may also be told not to eat raw vegetables or thin-skinned fruits during your nadir.

  • Reduce your risk of illness. During this time your body is less able to fight off colds, measles, and other illnesses. Stay away from anyone who has a fever or an infection and avoid large crowds during your nadir.

  • Wear gloves. Make it harder for infection to enter your body. Wear gloves when you work around germs and dirt. Have someone else clean a pet’s tank, cage, or litter box.

  • Avoid cutting yourself. Protect your feet from injury and germs by not walking barefoot.

Medications can help you to

  • Prevent and treat infection. Antibiotics work in this way by attacking and killing the germs that cause infection.

  • Trigger new cell growth. These medications cause your body to make new white blood cells. Neupogen is an example of such a drug.

Talk with your doctor about optimal medications. In some circumstances, your doctor may advise you to avoid Tylenol and other NSAIDs for pain relief because these drugs can “mask” a fever if you have neutropenia. Talk with your doctor about medications for pain control if needed during your nadir period.

When to seek medical advice

Contact your doctor right away if you have any of the following:

  • Temperature of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher.

  • Burning when you urinate.

  • Severe coughing or sore throat.

  • Shortness of breath, sweating, or chills.

  • Pain, especially near an open wound or catheter site.


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