Infections in People With Cancer

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What are signs of infection in people with cancer?

It’s important to watch for early signs of infection and tell your health care team about them right away. This way treatment can be started as early as possible. This is most important for people who have a low white blood cell count. Signs and symptoms of an infection might include:

  • Body temperature of more than 100.5º F or higher taken by mouth
  • Shaking chills or sweats (often goes along with fever)
  • Sore throat
  • Cough or shortness of breath
  • Nasal congestion
  • Burning or pain when passing urine; bloody or cloudy urine
  • Redness, swelling, drainage, or warmth at the site of an injury, surgical wound, or vascular access device (VAD), or anywhere on the skin including the genital and rectal areas
  • Pain or tenderness in the stomach or abdomen (the belly)
  • Stiff neck
  • Sinus pain or headache

Fever is especially important because it’s often the first sign of an infection in people with cancer. You should have a thermometer to check your temperature – you can’t rely on how you feel to know when you have a fever. Patients may be told to call their doctor or nurse if they have a temperature of 100.5º F or higher, or if they have other signs and symptoms of infection. Don’t take medicines to reduce your fever (such as Tylenol®, Advil®, Motrin®, or aspirin) without checking with your doctor first. Ask your doctor what you should do and when you should call. Be sure you know how to reach your health care team after hours, including nights and weekends.

It’s important for people with cancer and their families and friends to know these things:

  • Your risk for infection
  • How long your white blood cell count (WBC) or absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is likely be low after treatment
  • The importance of taking your temperature, how to take it the right way, when to check it, and how often to check it
  • When to report a fever or other signs and symptoms of infection to the doctor or nurse
  • The importance of basic hand washing and hygiene for the patient and the people they come in contact with
  • The importance of cleaning around the anus after each bowel movement
  • How to take good care of your mouth and check for sores and fungal infections
  • How to clean cuts, scrapes, or other breaks in the skin and keep them clean to prevent infection
  • Good care of IVs and vascular access devices (VADs)
  • Where to look for signs of infection (skin, mouth, and VAD sites)
  • The importance of good nutrition, a balanced diet, and drinking plenty of fluids
  • The importance of sleep and exercise, and how to pace yourself to save energy
  • The need to take medicines as prescribed and being sure the doctor knows about all medicines you are taking (prescription, over-the-counter, vitamins, herbs, and supplements); keep a list and update it at each doctor visit
  • Ways to prevent dryness of the skin and mucous membranes
  • The need to talk with your health care team or doctor before getting vaccinated (immunized) and before getting close to children or adults who have recently had vaccinations.

Review these points with your doctor or nurse before and during treatment to get the information that is most important to you. Double check with them about how you would expect to handle these things and find out if there are ways that would work better during your cancer treatment.

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