Chemotherapy safety precautions

Chemotherapy is strong medicine that can be harmful to healthy people. That’s why the oncology nurses and doctors wear gloves, goggles, gowns, and sometimes masks. This protective clothing reduces their risk of exposure to the drugs as they administer the chemotherapy. When treatment is over, these items are disposed of in special bags or bins.

After chemotherapy treatment, the drugs may remain in your body for up to a week. This depends on the types of drugs used. The drugs are then released into urine, stools and vomit. They could also be passed to other body fluids such as saliva, sweat, semen and breast milk.

Some people worry about the safety of their friends and family during chemotherapy treatment, especially if looking after someone at home. Your family and friends, including children, babies and pregnant women, can visit you while you’re having chemotherapy. Research about the effects of coming into contact with chemotherapy drugs is continuing, and it is recommended family and friends take the safety measures listed below when caring for someone at home.

Chemotherapy safety in the home

Follow these safety guidelines to reduce exposure to chemotherapy while at home. Safety precautions can vary depending on the drugs you receive, so ask your medical oncologist about your individual situation.

  • Put the lid down when flushing the toilet for up to a week following a treatment session to avoid splashing.
  • Wash items soiled with body fluids in a separate load. Choose the maximum cycle that the fabric will allow.* Line dry these items.*Workplace Health and Safety Queensland Department of Industrial Relations Guide for Handling Cytotoxic Drugs and Related Waste recommends one wash cycle.
  • Keep a supply of disposable rubber gloves and cleaning cloths handy. Seal used gloves and cloths in a plastic bag before putting them in the bin.
  • Wear rubber or disposable waterproof gloves when handling clothing or bed sheets soiled with vomit or other body fluids, such as urine or stools.
  • If body fluids or chemotherapy medication spill onto household surfaces (such as the carpet or a mattress), wear rubber gloves, soak up the spill with disposable paper towels, clean around the area with a disposable cloth and soapy water, and rinse the area with water.
  • If medication spills on your skin, wash the area with soap and running water. Contact the hospital if any redness or irritation caused by the spillage doesn’t clear up within the hour.
  • Avoid pregnancy while you are having chemotherapy. If you have a baby, you will not be able to breastfeed during your course of chemotherapy.
  • Use a condom or a female condom if having any type of sex within 7 days of chemotherapy treatment. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information about how long you need to use this protection.
  • Don’t crush, chew or cut chemotherapy tablets. If you can’t swallow a tablet whole, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Store chemotherapy tablets, capsules or injections as directed by your doctor or pharmacist – do not keep them in a pill organser with other medications. Keep them out of reach of children. Seal empty tablet containers in a plastic bag and return them to your pharmacy or hospital oncology department for disposal.

If you still have questions after reading the chemotherapy safety in the home information, talk to your treatment team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

This information was last reviewed in August 2014

This information has been reviewed by: A/Prof Paul Craft, Medical Oncologist, The Canberra Hospital, Medical Oncology, Australian National University Medical School and Clincial Director, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, ACT; Kate Archibald, Clinical Nurse Specialist (Oncology), Monash Health, VIC; Elaine Arnold, McGrath Breast Care Clinical Nurse Consultant, Northern Beaches Health Service, NSW; Ilne Geddes, Consumer; Tina Griffiths, Nurse Coordinator Chemotherapy, Cancer Services, Olivia Newton- John Cancer & Wellness Centre, VIC; and Cecelia van Raders, Team Leader, Cancer Council Helpline, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD.

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