The medications used to kill cancer cells are very powerful. If you are handling or receiving these drugs, you should take precautions to keep yourself — and everyone else — safe.
Chemo drugs can remain in your bodily fluids for a few days afterward, and your caregivers can absorb those drugs through their skin if they touch your blood, urine, stool, saliva, semen, vaginal secretions or vomit.
Short-term exposure to some chemo drugs can cause skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, belly pain, cough, dizziness, eye irritation, hair loss, headache, mouth/throat/nose sores and allergic reactions. Long-term exposure has been associated with secondary cancers, infertility and birth defects.
At Home After Chemotherapy
As a general rule, follow these safety measures for 48 hours after receiving chemotherapy:
- When instructed to throw away or dispose of contaminated items, always put them in a sealed plastic bag before putting them in the trash. (You can also “double bag” by putting the first plastic bag inside another one (both sealed).) Double-bagged waste can go into the household trash.
- Depending on the drugs you take, you may be advised to use a different toilet from the one used by others in the home (if possible) and/or to close the toilet lid and flush twice after each use.
- To avoid splashing, men should sit to urinate.
- Always wash your hands with soap and water after using the toilet.
- Disposable undergarments (for example, Depends®) should be changed immediately when soiled. Wash your hands and put on gloves. Remove the soiled undergarment and throw it away. Wash the surrounding skin with soap and water and gently pat dry. Put on a clean undergarment, if needed. Remove your gloves and wash your hands.
- Caregivers must wear gloves when handling the patient’s bodily fluids. After each use, throw away the gloves and wash your hands.
- If you have a container or device that has had contact with contaminated body fluids, wash it with soap and water and dry with paper towels. Throw away the paper towels, take off the gloves and throw them away, and then wash your hands with soap and water.
- Washing soiled sheets and clothes: While wearing gloves, immediately put soiled laundry in the washing machine. Machine wash twice in hot water with regular laundry detergent. Wash separately from other laundry. Do not hand-wash. If you cannot wash it right away, put the soiled laundry in a sealed plastic bag until you are ready.
- If a spill or splash of any bodily fluid occurs, put on gloves and clean the area immediately with paper towels. Throw away the paper towels, remove the gloves and dispose of them, and then wash your hands.
- Patients should use separate plates, glasses and utensils, or use disposables. Wash nondisposables in the dishwasher. If there is no dishwasher, use hot, soapy water and dry them thoroughly.
Receiving Chemotherapy at Home
Chemotherapy can be given at home by a portable infusion pump, by IV from a homecare nurse, or as a pill or capsule. If you are using a home infusion pump, your homecare nurse should provide you with a spill kit and teach you how to use it.
- Wash your hands before and after touching your medication.
- Caregivers can pour pills into a small cup and hand that to the patient, or they can wear gloves when handling the medication.
- Never break, crush, chew or open your tablets or capsules unless otherwise instructed.
- Store your medication in a place that is away from sources of water, direct sunlight and excessive heat, cold and humidity. Be sure children and pets cannot reach your pills. Keep your pills in a separate place from other medicines.
- Read the medication package and any attached paperwork to see if there are additional storage requirements specific to your medication, such as refrigeration.
- Do not put chemotherapy medications in the garbage or down the toilet. Return wet, unused or expired chemo medications to the pharmacist or hospital for disposal. Keep your oral chemotherapy stored in a safe place until you can return it.
Never miss another Cancer Talk blog!
Sign up to receive our monthly Cancer Talk e-newsletter.Sign up!
- Keep calm. If the chemo got on your skin, wash the area several times with soapy water.
- Call the Poison Control Center immediately at 1-800-222-1222.
- Tell your doctor about the exposure on your next visit. One exposure may not cause harm, but you’ll want to avoid long or repeated exposures.
When to Call Your Roswell Park Care Team
- You have a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher (when temperature is taken by mouth).
- You are bleeding.
- You have pain or redness at the IV site where the chemo was given.
- You are having trouble swallowing or keeping down liquids or your chemo pills.
The level of precautions you will need to take depends on a number of things, including the drug type and dose, how you receive the medication (IV or pill) and your personal health. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to find out what precautions are appropriate for you.