Risks for Infection During Chemotherapy

May 6, 2016

Risks for Infection During Chemotherapy

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Experiencing chemotherapy can be frightening and confusing.  Unfortunately, the intensity of the chemotherapy affects the entire body, even though the cancer is being treated. Chemotherapy can attack and damage other natural internal processes such as the immune system. Those with damaged immune systems are placed at a higher risk to contract and be unable to fight off infections. This is due to the fluctuation of white blood cell amounts, which make up the immune system. A common cold for a chemotherapy patient can quickly become something more serious, or even deadly.

Reduction of white blood cells is a common side effect of chemotherapy and a majority of what patients’ experience. However, the loss of white blood cells dramatically increases the potential for developing a serious infection and interrupts the treatment.

Chemotherapy patients are at the highest risks for infections 7 to 12 days after receiving treatment. During this period, the patient’s white blood cell count is at its lowest point, called nadir, due to the close time proximity to receiving treatment. Nadir can last for a short period of time and return to normal levels or for those with certain risk factors, nadir can become a continuing issue.

Risk Factors for Infection

Risk factors which can increase the potential for infections include:

  • Strength or combination of chemotherapy drugs
  • Those aged 65 years and older
  • Females
  • Those with conditions preventing complete daily independence, such as personal care assistance or immobile
  • Those with other conditions affecting the immune system such as kidney disease or an autoimmune disease
  • Those with cancer spreading to other parts of the boys include the blood or lymph nodes
  • Previously received chemotherapy

Preventing Illness

If you are aware you are experiencing a low white blood cell count, it is impossible to 100 percent prevent any infection. However, it is entirely possible to take conscientious steps to protect you.

  • Consistent cleanliness is key. Keep antibacterial soap through the household. Also, carry antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer when going out is essential. The risk of contracting an infection is increased when in public areas with large numbers of people.
  • Use antiseptic mouthwash. The mouth is more sensitive to contracting infections because it is an accessible pathway to the inside of the body. Avoid touching your mouth or eyes when out in public.
  • Keep skin nicely moisturized. Dry skin cannot only be painful but crack into small cuts. Wounds of any size are a major risk factor.
  • Do not share cups, plates, utensils or any other object intended for oral use.
  • Receive the seasonal flu vaccine as soon as it is available.
  • Wounds of any size are a major risk factor. Be very weary of open and exposed wounds. Similar to the eyes and mouth, exposed wounds are a direct entrance way into the bloodstream. It is highly recommended to cover open and exposed wounds with anti-infection and cream and bandages.

Talking with your doctor

Discussions with your doctor on the prevention and possible treatment of infections while receiving chemotherapy can be the most beneficial. You should include your doctor because they have the knowledge to properly create a customized prevention regime incorporating factors such as your cancer type, the stage of your cancer, medications, and other conditions. When meeting with your doctor, create a list of questions most useful to you. A list of helpful questions may include:

  • Is my risk or infection is increased because of my past medical history?
  • Does my type of cancer place me at a higher risk for depleted white blood cell counts than other cancer types?
  • What can I do to lower my risk of infections?
  • How do I know if I have an infection?
  • How do I treat the infection while in chemotherapy?
  • What happens if the infection is treated, but does not go away?
  • What other things can increase the likelihood of contracting an infection?

Symptoms of Something More Serious

Although each person is different depending on their medical and physical profile, there are common symptoms chemotherapy patients develop when infected by the common cold. Minor infections are prone to quickly becoming serious for cancer patients. If you are experiencing more of one of the following, it is highly recommended a medical professional to be contacted immediately. 

  • A fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Change in cough or a new cough
  • A sore throat or mouth
  • Nasal Congestion
  • New onset pain
  • Vomiting

If the signs of infection are serious enough for you to visit the emergency room, it is highly recommended you inform those at the check-in desk of your condition and status. Simple infections can become deadly in a small window of time. Patients with existing infections should not stay in the waiting room exposed to other sickly people.

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