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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.

NOTE: This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to making decisions about your treatment.

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