Infections in People With Cancer

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Medicines to prevent infections during cancer treatment

Sometimes, doctors prescribe medicines when a person’s absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is very low — even though there’s no sign of infection. The drugs are given to help keep you from getting an infection.

Preventive antibiotics

Anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and/or anti-fungal drugs may be used to help prevent infection. You may hear this called prophylactic antibiotic use, or just prophylaxis. Prophylaxis is only used when there’s a very high risk of getting infections, for example, if you are expected to have a very low neutrophil count for a week or longer. Antibiotics may also be given if you are taking other medicines that can make your immune system weak, such as a long course of steroids or certain immunotherapy or chemotherapy drugs.

The prophylactic antibiotics are stopped when your ANC improves or your immune system is no longer so weak (often some time after the immune-weakening drugs are stopped). Using antibiotics in this way does not prevent all infections, so it’s still important to use the same precautions as when you are not taking preventive antibiotics.

Growth factors

Growth factors are proteins your body makes to help your blood cells grow. They are also known as colony-stimulating factors (CSFs).

You can be given man-made CSFs as injections (shots). They are most often used after chemo to keep your white blood cell (WBC) count up and help prevent infection. You may be given a CSF before a cycle of chemo to help your WBCs grow and keep your absolute neutrophil count (ANC) from getting too low. Or, you might get it when your ANC is low to help build it back up. Your doctor also may give you a CSF if your ANC is low and you have a serious infection that is getting worse even though you are getting treatment.

CSF drugs used today include filgrastim (Neupogen®) and pegfilgrastim (Neulasta®), which affect the neutrophils. Sargramostim (Leukine®) is a CSF that affects neutrophils, monocytes, and macrophages. All of these medicines shorten the length of time a person is neutropenic (low on neutrophils) and make the shortage of WBCs and neutrophils less severe.

Growth factors can have serious side effects in some people, but they can reduce the risk of infection in the patients who need them. You can call us (1-800-227-2345) to get more information on each of these drugs.

Last Medical Review: 11/06/2013
Last Revised: 11/06/2013