Cancer: Preventing Infections

Chemotherapy can make your body less able to fight off infection. This happens because treatment reduces the number of your white blood cells. White blood cells fight infection 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 medicines you are taking. Each medicine has its own nadir. Talk with your healthcare provider about your nadir period. Then take extra care to prevent infection at that time.

Protect yourself

  • Keep your hands clean. To reduce your risk of infection, bathe every day 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.

  • Stay away from 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 for 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. Also stay away from 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.

  • Try not to cut yourself. Protect your feet from injury and germs by not walking barefoot.

How medicines can help

You may need to take medicines to:

  • Prevent and treat infection. Antibiotics attack and kill the germs that cause bacterial infection.

  • Trigger new cell growth. These medicines cause your body to make new white blood cells. Neupogen is an example of this kind of medicine.

Talk with your healthcare provider about the best medicines for you. In some cases, he or she may tell you to not take acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) for pain relief. This is because these medicines can hide a fever if you have low white blood cell count (neutropenia). Talk with your healthcare provider about medicines for pain control if you need it during your nadir period.

When to call your healthcare provider

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

  • Fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Burning when you urinate

  • Severe coughing, nasal congestion, or sore throat

  • Shortness of breath, sweating, or chills

  • Vomiting or diarrhea

  • Pain, especially near an open wound or catheter site