Infections are caused by germs that enter the body, grow, and cause harm, illness, and sometimes death. Learn more about infections and who is at risk.
Infections can be a serious complication for people with cancer, but there are many things you can do to protect yourself from getting an infection.
Infections in People with Cancer
Cancer and certain cancer treatments can increase your risk of getting a serious infection. By learning more about infections, you and your family may be able to help prevent problems that infections can cause. If you know the signs and think you might have an infection, tell your health care team right away. You’ll want to start treatment as early as possible.
Know the Signs of Infection
- Fever of 100.5 °F (38 °C) or higher
- Sore throat
- Ear pain, headache or sinus pain, or a stiff or sore neck
- Skin rash
- Sores or white coating in your mouth or on your tongue
- Skin swelling, redness, or warmth, especially where a catheter is located
- Urine that is bloody or cloudy, or pain when you urinate
- Learn more signs.
Tell Your Health Care Team
- Call your health care team if you notice any signs of an infection. Infections during cancer treatment can be life threatening and require urgent medical attention.
- Be sure to talk with your doctor or nurse before taking over-the-counter medicine—even aspirin, acetaminophen (such as Tylenol®), or ibuprofen (such as Advil®) for a fever. These medicines can lower a fever, but may also mask or hide signs of a more serious problem.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Following these steps can help you minimize your risk of infection.
Everyday Tips for Preventing Infections
Keep Your Hands Clean
- Wash your hands often and well, especially before eating. Use soap and warm water.
- Ask people around you to wash their hands well, too.
Protect Your Body
- Keep the area around your catheter, if you have one, clean and dry.
- Brush your teeth well and check your mouth for sores or other signs of an infection each day.
- Clean any scrapes or cuts well and protect them while they heal.
- Let your doctor or nurse know if your bottom is sore or bleeds, as this could increase your risk of infection.
- Stay away from people who are sick or have a cold.
- Avoid crowds.
- Talk to your doctor about your risk from others who may have recently gotten a vaccine that contains live viruses, such as chickenpox or shingles.
- Follow food safety guidelines, and make sure that the meat, fish, and eggs you eat are well cooked. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Your doctor might advise you to eat only fruits and vegetables that can be peeled and to wash all raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
Talk to Your Health Care Team
Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions to ask. Consider including the following questions:
- Am I at increased risk of infection during treatment?
- When am I at increased risk?
- What steps should I take to prevent infection?
- What signs of infection should I look for?
- Which signs would signal that I need to go to the emergency room right away?
- Which signs should I call you about?
The American Cancer Society has information about preventing infections in people with cancer.
Three Steps Toward Preventing Infections During Cancer Treatment
Whether you are a cancer patient or a caregiver, follow these three simple steps to help avoid infection:
- Prepare. Take this risk assessment test. Your answers to a few questions can help estimate your risk for developing a low white blood cell count during chemotherapy.
- Prevent. Learn steps to help prevent infections, including tips on recognizing the signs and symptoms of an infection while your white blood cell count is low.
- Protect. Know the actions you can take to protect yourself, such as calling your doctor if you experience a fever, which is an early sign of an infection.
Get a Flu Shot
The flu shot is recommended for most people with cancer, cancer survivors, and their family members. The nasal vaccine, however, is not recommended, because it contains live virus. Learn more about flu shots for people undergoing cancer treatment.
For more detailed information on support options, visit Get Support.
Talk to Your Health Care Team
Your health care team needs to know how you’re doing. Be sure to tell them about any changes you notice.
Talk to Family and Friends
Your loved ones want to support you. They can help with activities like housework, running errands, and getting to appointments. Be as specific as possible about the kind of help you need.
Find Peer Support
Talk About Your Concerns
Peer groups offer a welcoming environment to share your feelings and experiences with people who are going through the same things. Use the American Cancer Society’s Resource Search to find a peer group in your area or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for personalized assistance.
Visit the Cancer Survivors Network Online
The Cancer Survivors Network is an online community with more than 40 discussion boards where cancer survivors share their cancer-related experiences, support one another, and exchange practical tips.
NCI Cancer Information Service
Speak to a National Cancer Institute health information specialist by calling 1-800-4-Cancer.
The National Cancer Institute offers live, online assistance through its LiveHelp service.
ACS National Cancer Information Center
Get information and tips from a cancer information specialist at the American Cancer Society by calling 1-800-227-2345. Lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The American Cancer Society offers live, online assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Select the Live Chat option from any page on cancer.org.
Learn More About Infections
The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you understand and prevent infections, including: