Infections in People With Cancer

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What are the risk factors that mean infections could be serious?

When your cancer treatment causes low white blood cell counts, you have a higher risk of getting an infection. When your absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is low (neutropenia), there are other risk factors that can make any infection you get more likely to become a serious one. For instance, fever is more likely to mean a serious infection if your ANC is low and you:

  • Are in the hospital when your fever starts
  • Have other serious illnesses
  • Have cancer that is not controlled or is getting worse
  • Have an ANC of 100 or less for a week or more
  • Are age 60 or older
  • Do not have normal liver and/or kidney function
  • Have lung disease, like emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Can’t eat because of severe mouth sores
  • Are dehydrated
  • Have low blood pressure
  • Are taking alemtuzumab (Campath®)
  • Have signs that suggest pneumonia or another complex infection

If you have more than one of these risk factors, the risk of serious infection is even higher. Serious infections will probably need to be treated in the hospital because they can be life-threatening. A person with neutropenia and a serious infection must be treated aggressively and followed up carefully.

Factors that might work in your favor

When your ANC is low, an infection is less likely to be serious if you:

  • Have none of the high-risk factors listed above
  • Are expected to be neutropenic for less than a week
  • Are still able to do most of your daily activities for yourself

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