Chemotherapy and Infection
Chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment for childhood cancers. These powerful cancer-fighting drugs work by killing the fastest-growing cells in the body—both good and bad. That means that along with killing cancer cells, healthy white blood cells called neutrophils often get destroyed too. When the number of white blood cells is reduced, a condition called neutropenia occurs and can increase your child’s risk for getting an infection. This is a common and serious side effect of cancer treatment.
Since the length of time it takes your child’s blood counts to drop depends on the dose and type of drug used, you should talk to your child’s doctor about when they are likely to be at an increased risk for infection.
When caring for your child, it is important to do the following:
- Take your child’s temperature if he or she feels warm, has the chills, or does not look or feel well.
- Treat a fever as a medical emergency. A fever may be the only sign of infection your child will experience. Call his or her doctor immediately if they develop a fever, even in the middle of the night. Do not wait for the office or clinic to open.
- Know the other signs or symptoms of infection and call your child’s doctor immediately if he or she is experiencing any of these signs or symptoms.
- Take steps to lower your child’s chances of getting an infection.
Other Signs and Symptoms of Infection
While monitoring your child for a fever is important, there are several other signs or symptoms you should know about that may mean your child has an infection, including the following:
- Chills and sweats
- Shortness of breath
- Stiff neck
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Change in cough or a new cough
- Sore throat
Additional signs and symptoms that may mean your child has an infection include:
- Burning or pain when using the bathroom
- Increased urination
- Stomach pain
- Loose bowels/diarrhea
- Changes in skin (e.g., blisters, rash, skin sores); check your child’s skin and mouth daily
- Sores or pain around the rectum
- Redness, swelling, pain, or pus at the site of a surgical wound or central venous access device (central line or port)
- New onset of pain
- Change in mental status (e.g., confusion, depression)
Children who receive chemotherapy can be at high risk for getting a serious infection. If this happens and your child does not receive medical care right away, your child could get very sick and may even be at risk for dying. If any of the above signs occur, contact your child’s doctor or nurse immediately. Do not wait until their office or clinic is open.
More Tips on Preventing Infections
Here are some additional steps you should take to lower your child’s risk for picking up an infection:
- Discuss your child’s condition, treatment and infection risk with school personnel.
- Discuss international travel plans with your child’s doctor.
- Check with your doctor before letting your child use a swimming pool or hot tub.
- Try to stop your child from playing with toys that have come into contact with other children. Regularly wash soft toys and security blankets in the washing machine, and wipe down other toys to keep them clean.
- Do not feed your child raw or undercooked meat or eggs.
- As a caregiver, you should avoid artificial nails.
Helpful Web Sites and References
American Cancer Society. (2010). Nutrition for children with cancer . Retrieved February 22, 2011, from http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/002902-pdf.pdf
KidsHealth. (2011). Chemotherapy. Retrieved April 18, 2011, from http://kidshealth.org/parent/system/ill/chemotherapy.html
Marrs, J. A. (2006). Care of patients with neutropenia. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 10(2), 164–166.
National Cancer Institute. (2008). Managing chemotherapy side effects. Retrieved May 3, 2011, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemo-side-effects/infection
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. (2003). The signs of infection. Retrieved February 17, 2011, from http://www.stjude.org/SJFile/infection_signs_of.pdf