By Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
There is important news for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Did you know that one of the most dangerous side effects of chemotherapy cannot be seen? That’s right; a low white blood cell count puts cancer patients at a higher risk for getting an infection. This condition, called neutropenia, is common after receiving chemotherapy.
While chemotherapy can be an important part of a patient’s treatment for cancer, it can also damage infection-fighting white blood cells. So, when a cancer patient’s white blood cell count dips too low during their chemotherapy treatment, so does their immune system, increasing their risk of infection. An infection in people with cancer is an emergency. In fact, it’s estimated that each year 60,000 cancer patients are hospitalized for chemotherapy-related infections and one patient dies every two hours from this complication.
Chemotherapy and Infection – What you should know
An infection in people with cancer is an emergency, so be prepared and remember the following three things during chemotherapy:
- Treat a fever as an emergency, and call your doctor right away (even after hours) if you develop a fever that is 100.4° F or higher for more than one hour, or a one-time temperature of 101° F or higher.
- Find out from your doctor when your white blood cell count will be the lowest because this is when you are most at risk for infection.
- If you have to go the emergency room, it’s important that you tell the person checking you in that you have cancer and are receiving chemotherapy. If you have an infection, you should not sit in the waiting room for a long time. Infections can get very serious in a short amount of time.
What are the signs and symptoms of an infection?
While fever may be the only symptom you have, it’s important that you know other signs and symptoms you might experience if an infection is looming. The CDC suggests you call your doctor right away if you have any of the following:
- Fever- a temperature of 100.4° F or higher for more than one hour, or a one-time temperature of 101° F or higher.
- Chills and sweats
- Change in cough or new cough
- Sore throat or new mouth sore
- Shortness of breath
- Nasal congestion
- Stiff neck
- Burning or pain with urination
- Unusual vaginal discharge or irritation
- Redness, soreness, or swelling in any area, including surgical wounds and ports
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Pain in the abdomen or rectum
- New onset of pain
- Changes in skin, urination or mental status
What can I do to protect myself against infections?
One of the best ways to prevent infections is to clean your hands often. This should include you, all members of your household, your doctors, nurses and anyone who comes into close contact with you. Don’t be afraid to ask people to wash their hands. Use soap and water to wash your hands, but it’s OK to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
To help address this problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed PreventCancerInfections.org. This website was developed for patients and caregivers and features an interactive online program designed to help assess a cancer patient’s risk for developing both a low white blood cell count during chemotherapy and subsequent infections.
It also provides information, action steps, and tools to reduce the risk of life-threatening infections during chemotherapy treatment.
This program was made possible through a CDC Foundation partnership with and funding from, Amgen. As part of the partnership, the CDC Foundation considered oncology expertise provided by Amgen.