7 Ways to Avoid Infections During Chemo

  • Female cancer patient with doctor in doctor's office
    How Chemo Raises Your Risk of Infection
    Chemotherapy, one of the most common cancer treatments, can increase your risk of infection because it kills white blood cells along with cancer cells. We need white blood cells, also called neutrophils, to fight off infection from bacteria and viruses. When we don’t have enough neutrophils, it’s easier for infections to take hold and cause problems. That’s why it’s crucial to do all you can to fight infections during cancer treatment. If you receive chemotherapy, you’ll likely get regular blood tests to monitor if you’re experiencing low levels of white blood cells, a condition called neutropenia. You can also take several easy steps to avoid infection on your own.

  • Close-up of woman washing hands
    1. Wash your hands—rinse and repeat.
    Wash your hands often if you’re receiving chemotherapy, especially before you eat. Ask friends and family to do the same when they’re with you. We may all think we know how to wash our hands properly, but it doesn’t hurt to brush up on the following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Use warm, clean running water. Lather your hands with soap. Scrub for 20 seconds or more, and then rinse and dry thoroughly on a clean towel.

  • Caucasian man on couch sick with with cold or flu looking at pack of pills
    2. Stay away from sick people.
    Since chemotherapy weakens your immune system, you’re more likely to catch a cold or the flu from friends or family members. Keep your distance, if you can, until they get better. As a precaution, don’t use the same cups or silverware as others, and stay away from sharing towels or shaving razors. You may also want to take a break from being in big public crowds at places like malls, schools, and public transportation. When you do go out, bring along hand sanitizer that contains alcohol and disinfecting wipes for surfaces and handles.

  • cracking raw egg into bowl
    3. Handle your food with care.
    You can get an infection from food that isn’t handled or cooked properly. Make sure you wash all fruits and vegetables before you eat them, even if they have peels or rinds. Always wash cutting boards and other cooking tools, especially after they’ve touched raw meat. Cook meat and eggs all the way through at temperatures high enough to kill germs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends cooking fresh beef at 145⁰ F, fish at 145⁰ F, and poultry at 165⁰ F. Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm.

  • woman cleaning home
    4. Get help around the house.
    Your house is full of items and surfaces that can spread infections. Keep “high touch surfaces” like doorknobs, light switches, computer keyboards, faucet handles, remote controls, and phones clean to prevent infection. Human, pet, and food waste all contain germs that can cause infection, so ask for help with changing diapers, cleaning litter boxes, scooping dog poop, and taking out the trash. If you do need to perform any of these tasks, wash your hands well afterward. Use antibacterial cleaning wipes for a quick and easy way to clean; they’re a better option than reusable towels or sponges, which can transfer germs from one area to the next. This can be a lot to take on, so consider hiring temporary help to assist you. Low-cost or no-cost cleaning services may be available in your area for people having cancer treatment. And try your best to make sure your home gets cleaned frequently, as germs can reappear quickly.

  • shower-head
    5. Bathe daily.
    When you’re not feeling well, it can be tempting to skip the next bath or shower. But it’s important to keep your personal hygiene in order when you’re going through chemotherapy and your natural resistance to infection is lower. Pay special attention to getting your feet, underarms, groin, and anal area clean. After you bathe, look for any new cuts where infection can get in and keep an eye out for redness or swelling around catheter or medication port sites.

  • mature man gardening at home
    6. Put certain hobbies on hold.
    Chemotherapy treatment doesn’t mean an end to everything you enjoy. Certain activities, however, carry more germs with them, so they’re best left for later. Gardening exposes you to bacteria in the soil, and having flowers or plants in the house brings in standing water and mold. Avoid taking a dip into natural bodies of water and hot tubs, too. And instead of having manicures or pedicures at a salon, try them at home so you can make sure your tools stay sanitary.

  • Older woman wearing scarf holding hand on forehead with headache or fever
    7. Know the signs of neutropenia.
    You may have symptoms of neutropenia before your doctor sees them on a blood test. Tell your doctor right away if you experience any of the following: a fever of 100.5⁰ F or higher, earache, sinus pain, sore throat, or cough. You may also have redness or swelling around accidental cuts or medical incisions. When you have cancer, an infection is serious, but it can be treated effectively, typically with broad-spectrum antibiotics and adjustments to your current treatment plan.

Avoiding Infections During Chemotherapy | Neutropenia

About The Author

Evelyn Creekmore has more than 15 years of experience writing online educational health content, including nearly 10 years full-time at WebMD, where she was the director of brand content. She holds an MPH in Applied Public Health Informatics from Emory University Rollins School of Public Health and an MA from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
  1. Infection and Neutropenia during Cancer Treatment. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/infection
    When & How to Wash Your Hands. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html
  2. Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients: Information for Patients and Caregivers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/preventinfections/patients.htm
  3. Preventing Infections in People With Cancer. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/preventing-infections-in-people-with-cancer.html
  4. Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients: Neutropenia and Risk for Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/preventinfections/neutropenia.htm
    Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures Charts. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/safe-minimum-cooking-temperature
  5. Management of Neutropenia in Cancer Patients. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4059501/
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Oct 1
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