Tips to help cancer patients prevent infections during the winter

(BPT) – “Oh the weather outside is frightful.” For many, this sums up the blustery season known as winter. With cold temperatures blanketing cities and towns, many have been spending more time indoors with friends and family. While everyone should take steps to stay healthy during this season, a cancer patient is at greater risk for picking up an infection because their immune system is not as strong as usual. If you have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy treatment, there are some important things you can do this winter that may help you avoid getting an infection.

One of the most dangerous, yet common and invisible, side effects of chemotherapy is neutropenia, or a low white blood cell count. White blood cells are one of the body’s main defenses against getting sick. Each year, approximately 60,000 cancer patients are hospitalized in the United States for chemotherapy-induced neutropenia, and one patient dies every two hours from this complication, according to research published in the journal Cancer.

Donna Deegan, three-time breast cancer survivor, knows all too well the dangers of infection during chemotherapy treatment.

“Like many people dealing with cancer, I was so overwhelmed by just trying to get through my treatment, and concerned about possible side effects like nausea and hair loss,” Deegan says. “Then I developed severe neutropenia, and it hit me like a truck. I developed a fever and ended up in the hospital for a week with pneumonia. I was frightened for my life, miserably sick for days, and worst of all, had to delay my chemo.”

“The threat of an infection for patients is a big concern,” says Dr. Lisa Richardson, an oncologist and the director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Infections not only make people with cancer sick, but can also delay future treatments, put them in the hospital, or even worse, cause death.”

To stay healthy this winter, Dr. Richardson offers cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy five tips:

1. Watch out for fever (a temperature of 100.4 F or higher). Take your temperature any time you don’t feel well or whenever your doctor recommends. Treat a fever as an emergency, and call your doctor right away if you get one.

2. If you have to go to the emergency room, tell the person checking you in that you have cancer and are receiving chemotherapy. Infections can get very serious in a short amount of time. You should not sit in the waiting room for a long time.

3. Clean your hands a lot and ask others around you to do the same. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

4. Ask your doctor when you should get a flu shot and when your white blood cell count will be at its lowest. This is when you are most at risk for infection.

5. Know the signs and symptoms of an infection, and call your doctor right away if you develop:

* 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

* Vomiting

* Pain in the abdomen or rectum

* New onset of pain

* Changes in skin, urination and mental status

If you or a loved one is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, learn more about how to prevent infections at Cancer patients can also complete a questionnaire that will help estimate their risk for developing neutropenia and infections during chemotherapy.

This website is part of a larger initiative called Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients. 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.

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