Cancer treatment: preventing infection


When you have cancer, you may be at higher risk of infection. Some cancers and cancer treatments weaken your immune system. This makes it harder for your body to fight off germs, viruses, and bacteria. If you get an infection, it can quickly become serious and be hard to treat. In some cases, you may need to go to the hospital for treatment. So it is important to learn how to prevent and treat any infections before they spread.

How Having Cancer Increases Infection Risk

As part of your immune system, your white blood cells help fight infection. White blood cells are made in your bone marrow. Some types of cancer, such as leukemia, and some treatments including bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy affect your bone marrow and immune system. This makes it harder for your body to make new white blood cells and increases your infection risk.

Your health care provider will check your white blood cell count during your treatment. When levels of certain white blood cells drop too low, it is called neutropenia. Often this is a short-lived side effect of cancer treatment. Your provider may give you medicines to help prevent infection if this occurs. But you should also take some precautions.

Other risk factors for infection in people with cancer, include:

  • Catheters
  • Medical conditions such as diabetes or COPD
  • Recent surgery
  • Malnutrition

Ways to Prevent Infection

There are many things you can do to help prevent infection. Here are some tips:

  • Wash your hands often. Hand washing is especially important after using the bathroom, before eating or cooking, after touching animals, and after blowing your nose or coughing. Carry hand sanitizer for times when you cannot wash.
  • Take care of your mouth. Brush your teeth often with a soft toothbrush and use a mouth rinse that does not contain alcohol.
  • Stay away from sick people. It is easy to catch a cold, the flu, chicken pox, or other infection from someone who has it. You should also avoid anyone who has had a live vaccine.
  • Clean yourself carefully after bowel movements. Use baby wipes or water instead of toilet paper and let your doctor know if you have any bleeding or hemorrhoids.
  • Make sure your food and drinks are safe. DO NOT eat fish, eggs, or meat that is raw or undercooked. And DO NOT eat anything that is spoiled or past the freshness date.
  • Ask someone else to clean up after pets. DO NOT pick up pet waste or clean fish tanks or birdcages.
  • Carry sanitizing wipes. Use them before touching public surfaces such as doorknobs, ATM machines, and railings.
  • Guard against cuts. Use an electric razor to avoid nicking yourself while shaving and do not tear at nail cuticles. Also be careful when using knives, needles, and scissors. If you do get a cut, clean it right away with soap, warm water, and an antiseptic. Clean your cut this way every day until it forms a scab.
  • Use gloves when gardening. There are often bacteria in soil.
  • Stay away from crowds. Plan your outings and errands for times that are less crowded. Wear a mask when you have to be around lots of people.
  • Be gentle with your skin. Use a towel to gently pat dry your skin after a shower or bath, and use lotion to keep it soft. DO NOT pick at pimples or other spots on your skin.
  • Ask about getting a flu shot. DO NOT get any vaccines without first talking to your provider. You should NOT receive any vaccines that contain a live virus.
  • Skip the nail salon and care for your nails at home. Make sure you use tools that have been cleaned well.

Know How to Spot an Infection

It is important to know the symptoms of an infection so you can call your health care provider right away. They include:

  • A fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • Chills or sweats
  • Redness or swelling anywhere on your body
  • Cough
  • Earache
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Sores in your mouth or on your tongue
  • Stiff neck
  • Rash
  • Bloody or cloudy urine
  • Pain or burning with urination
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sinus pressure or pain
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Pain in your stomach or rectum

DO NOT take acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or any medicine that may reduce a fever without first talking with your provider.

When to Call Your Doctor

During or right after cancer treatment, call your health care provider right away if you have any of the signs of infection mentioned above. Getting an infection during cancer treatment is an emergency.

If you go to an emergency room, tell the staff right away that you have cancer. You should not sit in the waiting room for long due to the risk of infection.


American Cancer Society. Infections in People with Cancer. November 2013. Last updated: 2/25/15. Accessed: July 17, 2015. Infections. Last updated: 4/2012. Accessed: July 17, 2015.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Neutropenia and Risk for Infection. Accessed: July 17, 2015.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients: Information for Patients and Caregivers. Lat updated: February 9/30/142014. Accessed: July 17, 2015.

Freifeld AG, Kaul DR. Infection in the Patient With Cancer. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 36.

National Cancer Institute. Chemotherapy and You: Support for People with Cancer. 2007. Last updated: 6/11. Accessed: July 17, 2015.

National Cancer Institute. Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Infection. Last updated: 2/February 2012. Accessed: July 17, 2015.

Review date:
December 07, 2016
Reviewed by:
Christine Zhang, MD, Medical Oncologist, Fresno, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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