Risk of infection

Risk of infection

Some cancer treatments can affect your blood count, especially the number of white blood cells.  You may sometimes hear this called neutropenia.

Neutropenia means having a low number of neutrophils. These are white blood cells that fight infection. If you have neutropenia, your body can’t fight infection as well as usual.

Infections during cancer treatment can be serious. It is important to be able to recognise the signs of an infection and know what to do if this happens.

Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have:

  • a temperature of 38°C or higher 
  • chills, sweats, shivers or shakes
  • a headache or stiff neck 
  • a sore throat, cough or cold 
  • shortness of breath 
  • sores in your mouth 
  • a rash or redness on your skin 
  • swelling, redness or tenderness, especially around a wound, a catheter site, or your rectal area
  • uncontrolled diarrhoea 
  • pain or blood when you pass urine.

Use the contact numbers you have been given. If you can’t get hold of anyone, go to your nearest hospital emergency department for assessment.

Be prepared

Know what to expect

Ask your specialist if your treatment is likely to affect your blood count, and increase your risk of infection. Ask what symptoms you should look out for.

If your treatment could affect you blood count, you will have regular blood tests to check this.

Know how to reduce the risk of infection

It is important to reduce your risk of infection when you are having some cancer treatments. Ask your doctor or nurse what precautions you should take.

Know how to take your temperature

Make sure you have a thermometer at home and know how to take your temperature. A high temperature is a common sign of infection.

Start a symptom diary

Keeping track of your symptoms can help you and your cancer care team to manage them better.

Talk to your doctor or nurse to see if there is a diary they recommend, or use the example provided on this page.

Know who to contact if you have a problem

Ask your doctor or nurse:

  • when you should call for help or advice
  • who you should contact
  • how to contact them (including at night or weekends).

Keep this information where you can easily find it.

Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Managing symptoms

Recognising signs of infection

Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have:

  • a temperature of 38°C or higher
  • chills, sweats, shivers or shakes
  • a headache or stiff neck
  • a sore throat, cough or cold
  • shortness of breath
  • sores in your mouth
  • a rash or redness on your skin
  • swelling, redness or tenderness, especially around a wound, a catheter site, or your rectal area
  • uncontrolled diarrhoea
  • pain or blood when you pass urine.

Use the contact numbers you have been given by your cancer care team. If you can’t get hold of anyone, go to your nearest hospital emergency department for assessment.

Treatment changes

Occasionally, if you have severe symptoms, your doctor may discuss delaying or changing your treatment. See our Treatment changes page for more information.

Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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