How to prevent infection during cancer treatment

How to prevent infection during cancer treatment

That little wound on your finger may not seem like a big deal, but if you don’t treat it, it can lead to a major problem: infection. This is serious work for cancer patients, who are at increased risk of infection and the consequences that often result. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 60,000 cancer patients are hospitalized with an infection each year in the United States.

The CDC website insists, “If you develop a fever during chemotherapy, this is a medical emergency.” Machiael Chowdhury, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), agrees. “Any fever during targeted cancer treatment should be evaluated immediately,” he says.

Side effects of treatment

Some types of cancer can weaken the immune system and put patients at risk of infection. However, in most cases, it is the treatment that makes patients susceptible to infection. For example, chemotherapy can cause a condition known as neutropenia, which is a severe drop in white blood cells. These cells, called leukocytes, include B cells, T cells, and natural killer cells (natural killer cells) that help fight infections and viruses. Reducing their numbers and infection can cause spoilage. Neutropenia caused by chemotherapy can also lead to what is known as autoinfection, which is caused by bacteria already in the body. Bacteria in the digestive system, for example, can spread into the bloodstream through a process called translocation, causing sepsis, an infection of the entire system.

Some immunotherapies are designed to reactivate the immune system, prompting it to search for and destroy cancer cells. But this supercharged immunity can also target some healthy cells, causing side effects that eventually lead to infections. Radiation can damage skin cells, which can lead to infections. There is a risk of infection due to surgery, and cancer patients should take great care to keep wounds clean to reduce the risk of secondary infection. And if they use certain medical devices, such as catheters or ports that deliver anti-cancer drugs into the body, they need to be aware of the risk of infection and take steps to mitigate it.

The onset of infection can make cancer treatment more complicated, and vice versa. “When a patient develops an infection, they delay their treatment,” Dr. Choudary says. “It is essential to clear the infection before you can start another course of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or any surgical procedure. Preventing or eliminating infection is vital to continuing targeted cancer treatment.” Additionally, clinicians should be vigilant about side effects caused by antibiotics in patients who already have treatment-related side effects such as rash, stomach upset, diarrhea, or impaired kidney function.

Tips to prevent infection

Dr. Choudary offers these tips to help patients prevent infection during cancer treatment:

Be careful. Watch for warning signs such as fever, tiredness, cough, or diarrhea. Keep cuts, scrapes, or surgical scars clean and watch for swelling or redness.

Practice good health habits. Wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Keep your home clean.

Avoid large crowds. Stay away from people you know may be sick.

Take the vaccine. Make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

Eat well and stay hydrated. Do not share food, cups, or utensils with other people. Avoid raw or undercooked foods. Consume and drink only pasteurized juices or dairy products.

Dr. Choudary also urged doctors to be “wise” when prescribing antibiotics to their patients. “We have to be careful about giving unnecessary antibiotics,” he says. “Overuse of antibiotics can help create organisms that are resistant to many drugs. We need to make sure that our infection-fighting tool does not become the enemy.”

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