Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Infection

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type of chemotherapy and the amount given. Anticipating and managing side effects can help to minimize them and provide the best possible experience for the person receiving chemotherapy.

Infection and chemotherapy
How can I help prevent infections?
What are the symptoms of an infection?

Infection and chemotherapy

As each person’s individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.

Many chemotherapy drugs can damage the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. White blood cells are the cells that fight many types of infections, which means that chemotherapy can leave you at risk for infection. The bacteria that cause most infections are normally found on your skin and in your mouth, intestines and genital tract. Sometimes, the source of an infection is unknown. Infections can happen to people even when they are very careful.

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How can I help prevent infections?

The following suggestions may reduce your risk of infection:

  • Wash your hands frequently throughout the day, especially before eating, after using the bathroom and after touching animals.
  • Clean your rectal area gently but thoroughly after each bowel movement. Consult your physician or nurse practitioner if the area becomes irritated or if you develop hemorrhoids.
  • Avoid people who are sick with communicable (contagious) illnesses, including a cold, the flu, measles or chickenpox.
  • Avoid crowds.
  • Stay away from children who have recently been given “live virus” vaccines such as chickenpox and oral polio, as they may be contagious to people with a low blood-cell count.
  • Avoid accidents and injuries. Be careful not to cut yourself in any way, including the cuticles of your nails. Use an electric shaver instead of a razor to avoid cutting yourself while shaving.
  • Clean cuts and scrapes immediately with warm soapy water and an antiseptic.
  • To protect your mouth and gums, brush your teeth after meals and before bedtime.
  • Do not squeeze or scratch pimples.
  • Take a warm (not hot) bath, shower or sponge bath every day. Pat your skin dry; do not rub it.
  • Use lotion or oil if your skin becomes dry.
  • Avoid contact with animal litter boxes and waste. Avoid bird cages and fish tanks as well.
  • Avoid standing water such as in bird baths, flower vases or humidifiers.
  • Wear gloves when gardening or cleaning up after others, especially small children.
  • Consult your physician before receiving any type of immunizations or shot, such as flu or pneumonia shots.
  • Do not eat raw fish, seafood, meat or eggs.

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What are the symptoms of an infection?

If you experience any of the following symptoms, consider it a medical emergency and consult your physician or nurses right away, before taking any medications:

  • Fever over 100° F
  • Chills, especially chills that cause your body to shake
  • Sweating
  • Earaches, headaches or stiff neck
  • Blisters on the lips or skin
  • Mouth sores
  • Severe cough or sore throat
  • Sinus pain or pressure
  • Loose bowel movements
  • Frequent rush to urinate or burning with urination
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or itching
  • Redness, swelling or tenderness, especially around a wound, sore, ostomy (an artificial opening in the abdomen), pimple, rectal area or catheter site

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