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How to Prevent Infection

Children with serious illnesses can be at high risk for infection.

Certain illnesses and treatments such as chemotherapy can weaken your child’s immune system. A person with a weak immune system is known as immunocompromised. They are at a higher risk for infections.

If your child’s immune system is weak, viruses such as COVID-19, the flu, and RSV can be more serious than they would be in a healthy child.

Close up of child washing hands with soap and water

Washing your hands often is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent infection.

Tips to prevent infection

If your child has a weak immune system, it is important to take steps to prevent a worsening illness. Talk to your child’s doctor about your child’s risk for infection.

Practice good hygiene

Ensure that your child and their environment are clean to help prevent infections. The best way to prevent infection is to clean your hands often. Clean your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Self-care is important to prevent infection. This includes:

  • Brushing teeth and good mouth care
  • Daily bathing
  • Protecting the skin from insect bites and natural elements that might cause reactions
  • Covering wounds with bandages
  • Following the care team’s advice for wound and line or catheter care

Limit exposure risk

  • If another member of your family has symptoms of a respiratory illness, keep them away from your child.
  • Your child should stay 6 feet away from anyone who is sick and should wear a mask.

Limit travel, avoid crowds, wear face masks in public places, and limit contact with people outside of your household.

Protect your child from germs

Even dust and dirt can have harmful germs for children who have weak immune systems. Basic cleaning of floors and surface areas can help reduce risk of infection.

Give special attention to any places where your child goes for medical care. Toys and other objects that children use can carry germs. Wipe down toys and electronics regularly.

Wash soft toys, blankets, and linens in hot water. Change bed sheets and linens often.

Why you should get your flu shot every year

Infectious disease expert Hana Hakim, MD, MS, explains the importance of getting the flu vaccine for children with serious illness and their families.

Read her blog post.

Get vaccinated

  • If your child is eligible for a vaccine and their care team agrees, get your child vaccinated.
  • Ensure the people in your household are vaccinated to provide extra protection for your child.

Be aware of infection sources

Things you might not usually think of can be a source of infection for children with weak immune systems. Talk to your medical team about these possible risks:

  • Fresh flowers: Flowers and plants can have harmful bacteria and fungus.
  • Pets and animals: Avoid contact with animals that are not pets. Make sure pets have had shots, are in good health, and have regular baths.
  • Dirt and soil: Some patients may become sick from Aspergillus and other germs that are in dust and dirt. Aspergillus is a type of fungus. Healthy people can breathe it in without getting sick. But people with weak immune systems may develop an infection called aspergillosis from it.

Think about food safety

Wash hands before preparing and eating foods. Keep food preparation areas clean. Store and cook food properly. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.

Talk to your doctor about foods to avoid and follow dietary instructions.

Watch for loose stools

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or infection can cause diarrhea. Wash hands with soap and water and disinfect surfaces. Wear disposable gloves when changing diapers.

Signs of infection

Call your child’s care team if your child has been exposed to a virus or has symptoms of an illness such as:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat

Sepsis: Know the signs

Every parent of a child with cancer or another serious disease should know the signs and symptoms of a sepsis infection.

Learn about sepsis.

Warning signs of severe illness are:

  • Shortness of breath or problems breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Blue lips or face
  • Confusion
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Loss of consciousness

Know what to do if symptoms develop. Call ahead before going to the doctor except in an emergency. Make sure you have extra medicines and medical supplies.

Do not delay medical visits unless your doctor says to do so.

If you have questions about your child’s health or about vaccines, talk with your child’s care team. They are the best source of guidance to help you manage your child’s health.

Questions to ask your care team about preventing infection

  • What are the best ways to prevent infection?
  • How will I know if my child has an infection?
  • If my child has an infection, what should I do?
  • Are there certain foods my child should eat or avoid?
  • When should I call my child’s care team?

Key points about preventing infection

  • Children with serious childhood illnesses may have weak immune systems.
  • If your child has a weak immune system, they may be more likely to have serious complications from common viruses.
  • You can take steps to help protect your child. These include washing hands often, avoiding crowds, and getting vaccines when eligible.
  • Your child’s care team is the best source for information and advice about vaccines and infection prevention.
  • Call your child’s care team if your child has been exposed to a virus or shows signs of infection.

Reviewed: November 2023