Infection Control & Prevention
What are infections?
Infections are illnesses caused by germs such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. People with cancer may be at increased risk for infections for a number of reasons.
- The cancer itself may compromise the immune system and the immune system is what protects the body from infection.
- Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy can decrease the number of healthy white blood cells. Neutrophils are a specific type of white blood cell that have a particularly important role in protecting from infection. Neutropenia, or low neutrophil count, can result from certain types of cancer treatment. The longer the duration of neutropenia, the greater the risk of infection.
- Other medicines used in cancer therapy (e.g., steroids) can also weaken the immune system.
What are the signs of infection?
It’s important for people receiving cancer treatment to be vigilant for signs of infection which include fever; cough and skin that is red, tender and swollen. If you experience any of these, you need to call your doctor.
What can I do to protect myself from infection?
Hand washing is one of the best methods for preventing the transmission of infections. If your hands are visibly dirty, then it is important to vigorously wash your hands with soap and water for 15 seconds. It is ok to use alcohol based hand sanitizers when soap and water is not available or if your hands are not noticeably soiled. It is also important for your healthcare providers and family/caregivers to wash or sanitize their hands before touching you. It is ok to ask others if they washed or sanitized their hands.
When do I need wash/sanitize my hands?
- Before eating, drinking, or taking medication
- After using the bathroom, coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
- Before touching your eyes, nose, mouth, contact lenses
- Before and after performing any care with your intravenous lines, catheters or bandages
- After touching things in the environment that are frequently touched by others
Your skin is your first line of defense to prevent infections from entering your body. It is important to practice good personal hygiene:
- Bath/shower regularly with a mild soap
- Change towels daily and do not share towels with others
- Inspect your skin closely for rashes, redness, signs of infection or cuts that does not heal properly
- Use a soft toothbrush to clean your teeth after meals and before going to bed
- Keep bandages dry. If they become wet, change them promptly
Other key points to remember:
- Avoid people who are sick and crowds of people, especially during cold and flu season
- Avoid handling animal feces/excrement
- Get plenty of rest. Fatigue can stress your immune system and can increase your risk of infection
- Eat a well balanced diet with proper nutrition
- Do not eat spoiled or expired foods. Do not consume raw meat or seafood. Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables
- Ask your healthcare provider about vaccines that prevent illness. However, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider before receiving any LIVE vaccines because live vaccines can potentially be harmful to persons with particular types of cancer.
- Encourage people in your household to get immunized as well.