Infection prevention during cancer treatment

There are many different types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapies and radiation therapy.

While they all affect your body in different ways, certain types of cancer treatments can lower your immunity and leave you vulnerable to infection. If you fall ill with a weakened immune system, your body will also find it more difficult to fight the infection.

To ensure you protect your health during cancer treatment, learning how to prevent infection and taking precautions is very important.

What can I do to prevent infection during cancer treatment?

There are many different ways you can reduce your risk of infection.

General health

  • Get enough regular sleep and rest
  • Ensure to eat a well-balanced diet
  • Keep physically active. Click here to learn more about fitness and the role it plays during cancer treatment and recovery
  • Reduce your stress. You can read more about stress management during cancer treatment by clicking here

Practice good hygiene

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently or use antibacterial hand sanitisers. This is important to lower your risk of falling ill, especially:
    • Before touching or eating food
    • After you have gone to the toilet
    • After sneezing or coughing
    • Before touching your eyes, nose and mouth
    • After visiting public places or touching items used by others
    • After touching any wound dressings
  • Shower or bathe daily
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough
  • Don’t share food, cups, utensils, toothbrushes or makeup
  • Clean your teeth and gums with a soft toothbrush. Use a mouthwash to prevent infections if your doctor or dentist recommends it

Meal preparation and foods to avoid

  • Prepare and store food properly to avoid foodborne illness and food poisoning
  • Don’t eat raw foods, including meats, shellfish, and eggs. Cook meat well before you eat and wash raw fruits and vegetables

Pet care

  • Animals can carry infections, so it is important not to change cat litter or handle animal waste

Around the house

  • Use gloves during gardening and housework, especially while cleaning
  • Be careful using sharp objects, such as scissors or knives. To avoid cuts, consider using an electric shaver and a blunt nail file instead of nail clippers

Infection control

  • Check with your doctor about having the flu or other vaccinations
  • Ask people close to you to consider being vaccinated against the flu
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick with illnesses you can catch (e.g. cold, flu, chickenpox, measles). Ask family and friends to wait until they feel well before visiting
  • As far as practical, avoid close contact with people you live with if they are unwell
  • Care for your wound dressings as instructed by your health care professional, if applicable

Signs of infection

You should always be on the alert for common signs of an infection, as this can quickly escalate to a medical emergency. These include:

  • Chills and/or shaking
  • Fever (a temperature of 38°C or higher)
  • Cough or sore throat
  • Loose stools or diarrhoea lasting over 24 hours
  • Change in urination (frequency or burning sensation)
  • Vaginal discharge or itching
  • Redness, swelling or sores on your skin
  • Earaches
  • Difficult or painful breathing
  • Wheezing

If you experience any sign of infection, no matter how small, call your treatment team immediately or go to your local emergency department.

References

For a full list of references, click here.
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncology. (2018). Infection. Retrieved on 18 February 2020 from https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/physical-emotional-and-social-effects-cancer/managing-physical-side-effects/infection
  2. Cancer Council. (2018). Infections. Retrieved on 18 February 2020 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/cancer-information/cancer-treatment/chemotherapy/side-effects/how-chemotherapy-affects-the-blood/infections/
  3. Cancer Institute NSW. (2015). Infection during cancer treatment. Retrieved on 18 February 2020 from https://www.eviq.org.au/getmedia/fa16c685-034f-4b6d-a576-ade128a940ce/English-Infection-During-Cancer-Treatments.pdf.aspx?ext=.pdf
  4. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Preventing infections in cancer patients. Retrieved on 18 February 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/resources/features/preventinfections/index.htm
  5. American Cancer Society. (2015). Preventing infections in people with cancer. Retrieved on 18 February 2020 from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/preventing-infections-in-people-with-cancer.html

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