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An infection is an invasion and multiplication of microorganisms or bacteria. Infection is a common side effect of cancer and cancer treatments, which can lower white blood cell (WBC) counts.
Neutropenia, or a low WBC count, is often discovered by a blood test or if an infection develops. Fever of 100.5°F or higher is often the first sign of an infection. Most infections occur in the lungs, mouth, throat, sinuses, and skin. Aside from a fever, other signs of infection may include fatigue, sore throat, shortness of breath, redness, pain, swelling, or a sore/wound that doesn’t heal.
When WBC counts are very low, doctors often prescribe antibiotics as a preventive measure. In addition, you may receive growth factors (e.g., filgrastim (Neupogen®), pegfilgrastim (Neulasta®), and sargramostim (Leukine®) to raise your counts before you resume treatment. Your doctor may also delay further treatment or recommend a lower dose until your WBC count returns to normal.
Tips for Reducing the Risk of Infection
- Be alert to early signs of infection, especially fever. When your neutrophil count is low, check your temperature twice a day (avoid rectal thermometers). If you develop a fever, let your doctor know immediately.
- Keep track of your blood counts so you know when your absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is low and you need to take extra precautions.
- Wash your hands often with warm water and soap. Keep your fingernails short and clean.
- Avoid large crowds of people, such as shopping malls or other enclosed public areas.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick with colds, viruses, or other infections, or who have recently received vaccines.
- Do not share food, drinking glasses, utensils, or other personal items (e.g., toothbrushes) with others.
- Practice good hygiene by bathing daily using mild soap.
- If you cut or scrape your skin, clean the area with warm water and soap, apply antiseptic, and cover it with a clean bandage.
- Check your skin daily for any changes and let your doctor know if your skin looks or feels different. If you have a central catheter, check the area for redness or soreness.
- Practice good oral hygiene and get regular dental check ups. Use a soft bristled toothbrush to prevent cuts and rinse your mouth often with sterile water or a bland, non-irritating solution.
- Maintain proper nutrition, including high-protein foods. Drink eight glasses of liquids each day.
- Avoid raw or undercooked foods, including meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, or unpeeled fruits. Also, eat or drink only pasteurized juice, milk, yogurt, cheese, or other dairy products.
- Use caution to avoid any cuts, sores, burns, or other irritations or injuries. Use an electric razor. Be careful when using sharp objects, such as scissors or knives.
- Wear protective gloves while doing housework or gardening and avoid sunburn.
- Avoid places where dust is being blown into the air (e.g., construction sites).
- Avoid contact with stagnant water (e.g., vases, humidifiers, denture cups).
- Do not handle animal waste, such as cat litter and bird cages or fish tanks.
- Find ways to reduce stress, such as relaxation techniques, distraction, and meditation.
- Stay as active as possible. Rest when you are tired.