Infection during cancer treatment can be life threatening. Your doctor will help you determine if the infection is serious and how best to manage your symptoms.


Cancer and its treatments may make it more likely that you will develop an infection. An infection occurs when bacteria, viruses, or less often, fungi (such as yeast) invade the body, but the immune system cannot stop them fast enough. Cancer treatments may weaken the immune system, increasing the chance of an infection. For example, chemotherapy lowers the number of neutrophils. Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that helps fight infection.

Common types of infections that need immediate medical attention include:

  • Pneumonia, which starts in the lungs
  • Urinary tract infection, which can start in the bladder or kidneys
  • Infections in the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, intestines, or anus
  • Blood infections, which are most common in patients with low white blood cell counts or patients with implanted catheters


Symptoms of infection requiring immediate care

Patients experiencing these symptoms may need emergency care. Call your doctor right away if you have one or more of the signs listed below. If you cannot reach your provider immediately, please go to the emergency room.

  • Fever that is 100.4° F (38° C) or higher
  • Shaking chills
  • Chest pain, or shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Severe headache with a stiff neck
  • Bloody or cloudy urine


Symptoms of infection requiring prompt care

The symptoms listed below may be safely managed by visiting your doctor’s office.

  • Cough
  • Swelling or redness anywhere, including around a cut, wound, or catheter
  • Sores or white coating in your mouth or on your tongue
  • Tooth or gum pain
  • Sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Headache or bad sinus pain
  • Stiff or sore neck
  • Abdominal pain
  • Skin sores or rash
  • Diarrhea or sores near the anus
  • Bloody or cloudy urine
  • Pain or burning when urinating
  • Vaginal discharge or itching
  • Any change or something that feels not normal for you, including a general sense of feeling unwell


Preventing infections

To help prevent infections follow the tips listed below.

  • Wash your hands well and often or use antibacterial hand sanitizers
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick or recently ill
  • Avoid big crowds when possible
  • Avoid sharing food, drinks, utensils and personal items
  • Shower or bathe daily and apply lotion to prevent dry cracked skin
  • Clean teeth and gums with a soft toothbrush
  • Avoid cuts and use an electric razor if possible
  • Avoid cat litter and handling animal waste
  • Keep the area around any catheter(s) clean and dry
  • Follow food safety guidelines, including no raw or undercooked meats, fish, shellfish, or poultry and washing all fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Eat a variety of nutritious foods
  • Get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep
  • Get enough physical activity
  • Avoid people who have just had vaccines for chicken pox, measles, polio, or the mist type of flu vaccine
  • Check with your doctor before getting any shot or vaccine yourself