15 Ways to Protect Against Infection

By Susan Amoruso Jara

While chemotherapy can be lifesaving, it can also wreak havoc on your immune system by killing your white blood cells, which are responsible for protecting your body from infection. If your white blood cell level drops too low (a condition known as neutropenia), your immune system won’t be able to effectively attack everyday germs.

Although harmless to healthy people, germs that breed on the skin and in the intestines and the environment can lead to serious infections in people receiving cancer treatment. One out of every 10 cancer patients who undergoes chemotherapy gets an infection that requires a hospital visit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Common infection sites include the skin and mucous membranes, the digestive system, the lungs and breathing passages, the urinary system and the skin and tissue around a vascular-access device, like an IV.

Once chemotherapy is finished, your risk of infection usually returns to normal. In the meantime, you can take a few easy precautions to stay healthy. Start with these tips from the American Cancer Society and the CDC:

Know the signs of infection, including diarrhea, painful urination, chills, a fever above 100.5ºF or a sore throat.

Check your body daily for redness and swelling, especially in areas where any tubes have entered your body.

Get your annual flu shot. But avoid the nasal-mist flu vaccine, which contains live viruses and is unsafe for those with compromised immune function. Also, people at home shouldn't receive this form of the vaccine in order to avoid passing on the live virus.

Wash your hands frequently. Be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails with soap and warm water. Continue rubbing for at least 20 seconds or the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

Invest in disposable cleaning wipes. Carry these at all times to clean surfaces, such as door handles and ATM or credit card keypads, before you touch them.

Avoid direct contact with a pet’s bodily waste. Protect your skin by wearing gloves when cleaning up after your pet, and wash your hands immediately afterward.

Dodge large crowds. And, if possible, avoid contact with anyone who has or has recently had the flu, a fever or another infection.

Wear shoes at all times, including in the hospital, outdoors and at home. Proper footwear will protect your feet from injury and germs.

Skip manicures and pedicures. Keep hands and feet safe by ditching acrylic nails or wraps. Bacteria can grow behind these, possibly causing infection.

Don’t share toothbrushes, glasses or hand and bath towels. Use color coding so family members don’t mistakenly swap products—and viruses. A paper-cup dispenser is useful so you can dispose of cups when finished with them.

Practice food safety. Don’t eat any cooked food that has been left at room temperature for two hours or more. Also, avoid food that has been handled or prepared with unwashed hands.

Say no to raw foods and unpasteurized milk and cheeses. They may contain dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. Coli and Listeria, which are known to cause food-borne illness.

Cook meat and eggs all the way through to kill germs. Avoid hot dogs, deli meats or processed meats, unless they're reheated to 165ºF.

Clean raw fruits and vegetables carefully. Gently rub produce under plain running water (there’s no need to use soap). Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers.  

Practice good oral hygiene. Clean your teeth and gums twice a day with a soft toothbrush. Ask your healthcare professional whether it’s okay to gently floss your teeth and whether you need a special mouthwash to prevent mouth sores. Tell your provider if your gums bleed, which may be a sign of infection.

Published June 2012

  Side Effects

Common Chemo Side Effects
Handling Chemotherapy Side Effects
Help for Lesser-Known Side Effects of Chemo
10 Easy Ways to Stay Well During Chemo
15 Ways to Protect Against Infection
Prevent Chemo-Related Infections at Home
Do's and Don'ts to Avoid Infection
Fight Back Against Weakened Immunity
What Is Neutropenia?
The Serious Side of Chemotherapy

Tips for Handling Chemo Side Effects
Reduce Side Effects Naturally—Here's How!
New Ways to Beat Back Nausea
Caring for Your Mouth During Chemo
How to Get a Good Night's Sleep
8 Ways to Cope With Chemo
11 Ways to Curb Chemo Fatigue
8 Ways to Cope When Chemo Causes Hot Flashes
On Chemo? Fend off Nausea
Infection Alert!