- Cancer Information
- Cancer treatment
- Managing side effects
- Blood-related side effects
Chemotherapy can reduce your white blood cell level, making it harder for your body to fight bacterial infections.
Learn more about:
- Risks of infection
- The role of white blood cells
- Taking care with infections during chemotherapy
Risks of infection
Bacterial infections that cause sickness may come from somewhere in your body (e.g. the bowel) and are not necessarily caught from other people. Viruses such as colds, flu and COVID-19 may be easier to catch and harder to shake off, and scratches or cuts may get infected more easily. Your doctor may recommend antibiotics as a precaution against infection. Learn some other ways to reduce your risk of getting an infection.
The role of white blood cells
There are many types of white blood cells. One type, called a neutrophil, protects you against infection by destroying harmful bacteria and yeasts that enter the body. During chemotherapy, some people have low levels of neutrophils. This is known as neutropenia.
To boost production of new white blood cells and protect you from infection, your doctor may give you injections of a growth factor drug called granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF). Your doctor or nurse will speak to you about possible side effects. Some people may experience bone pain or tenderness at the injection site. Let your doctor know if you have any of these side effects.
Some vaccinations are safe to have during chemotherapy treatment and others are not. It is safe to have the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccines available as at July 2022, but speak to your doctor before having these vaccinations.
During chemotherapy and for at least 6 months afterwards, you should not have vaccinations that contain a live vaccine. These include: the varicella (chickenpox), zoster (shingles), and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccines.
Taking care with infections during chemotherapy
Here are some tips to reduce your risk of infection during chemotherapy, and advice on when to seek medical help.
Reduce your risk
When to seek help
To prevent the spread of infection:
Contact your doctor or go to the nearest hospital emergency department immediately if you experience one or more of the following symptoms:
Cancer Australia has up-to-date information on COVID-19 vaccines for people affected by cancer.
Podcast for people affected by cancer
Prof Timothy Price, Medical Oncologist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, SA; Graham Borgas, Consumer: Dr Joanna Dewar, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Professor, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and The University of Western Australia, WA; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Angela Kritikos, Senior Oncology Dietitian, Dietetic Department, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Kate Mahon, Director of Medical Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Georgie Pearson, Consumer; Chris Rivett, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Marissa Ryan, Acting Consultant Pharmacist (Cancer Services), Pharmacy Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD.
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