How to manage infection risks during cancer treatment
Treat yourself to a beauty treatment now and then that can be good for your mind and body. “We know the things that make a person feel better actually improve the body’s defenses,” says Dr. David Schick, MD, medical director of infectious diseases and infection control at our Tulsa hospital. “When you feel better, your whole body works better.” This is why going to a hair salon or salon can seem like a great antidote to spending a day enduring cancer treatments. But before doing a pencil manicure, it is important to note your risks and protect yourself accordingly.
While some spa treatments, such as a massage, are not invasive, others, such as manicures and pedicures, are. And anything that allows bacteria to enter the body (think water in a pedicure bath that seeps under the nails) is dangerous for cancer patients.
Effects on the immune system
Many cancer treatments weaken the body’s immune system. Chemotherapy patients, for example, generally have lab work 10 days after treatment, because this is the time when their white blood cell count is most likely to be low. When the number of white blood cells is low, the body is less able to fight off germs, which is why cancer patients who undergo treatment are more likely to develop infections.
Infection during cancer treatment can cause a number of other problems, including hospitalization, delays in treatment, and poor outcomes. “Doing everything you can to prevent infection is much better than dealing with an infection once it has occurred,” says Dana Zamudio, an injection nurse at our hospital in Tulsa.
One of the most important ways you can protect yourself from infection during cancer treatment is to practice good hygiene, especially good hand hygiene. “The importance of hand washing cannot be stressed enough,” says Dr. Sheek. “This is not just before cooking or after going to the bathroom. You have to remember that the environments we enter are often covered in bacteria (tables, desks and other surfaces) and can be dangerous.” Wash your hands often and make sure the people around you do that too. This includes the technician who gives you a facial or a manicure.
Keep body surfaces and wounds clean
Other ways to practice good hygiene include bathing daily, keeping your mouth as clean as possible, and treating skin abrasions. Even the smallest cuts, scrapes, and sores open the door for bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause infection. To reduce the risk of injuring yourself while shaving, Joyce Clements, an esthetician at our Tulsa hospital, recommends using an electric razor instead of a razor.
Dr. Sheek also says, try to improve your observation skills. Beware of large crowds and avoid people you know are sick. Also consider avoiding public pools or spas. If your salon doesn’t look clean, or if the staff can’t satisfactorily answer questions about hygiene practices, feel free to leave, says Clements. Before any spa service, tell the esthetician that you are undergoing cancer treatment, so that he or she realizes the importance of keeping the environment as sterile as possible.
Zamudio adds that knowing your white blood cell count can also help protect you when you’re most vulnerable. The lower your white blood cell count, the more safety measures you need to take. If you develop a fever, chills, or other symptoms of an infection, such as a sore throat, muscle aches, or cough, tell your doctor right away so he can take action as soon as possible.
Dr. Shake says cancer patients shouldn’t have to throw in the towel at beauty treatments. “The last thing we want to do is discourage spa services that often make people feel better,” he says. “Pampering yourself is good. Just take the proper precautions.