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Preventing Infection

Children with cancer often have weak immune systems due to cancer or cancer treatments. This means they are more vulnerable to illnesses and infection. Patients and families can help prevent illnesses and lower risk of infection by following some simple steps.

Wash hands

The best way to prevent infection is to wash hands often with soap and water.  An alcohol-based hand sanitizer can also be used.  Health care providers and caregivers should follow good hand hygiene when giving care.  

Practice good personal hygiene 

Simple daily self-care is important to prevent infection.  This includes brushing teeth and good mouth care, daily bathing, protecting the skin, and following the medical team’s advice for wound and line/catheter care. 

Keep patient areas clean

For some children with weak immune systems, even dust and dirt can have harmful germs. Basic cleaning of floors and surface areas can help reduce risk of infection. Special attention should be given to any areas where the child receives 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. 

Avoid contact

Stay away from people who are sick. Even colds can be dangerous for patients with a weak immune system. Some patients may need to wear special masks to filter germs from the air. Family members who are ill can wear masks to reduce risk of spreading germs to the patient.

Masked patient getting vaccine from doctor

Patients should be vaccinated based on their doctor's advice.

Get vaccinated

Caregivers and family members should follow recommendations for vaccines, including flu (influenza) and whooping cough (pertussis). Patients should be vaccinated based on their doctors’ advice. Some patients with weak immune systems are not able to receive certain vaccines, especially live vaccines. This makes it even more important for people around them to have vaccines.

Watch for loose stools

Diarrhea in cancer patients can be due to chemotherapyradiation therapy, or infection. Wash hands and disinfect surfaces. Wear gloves when changing diapers. 

Be aware

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 potential risks:

  • Fresh flowers – Flowers and plants can have bacteria and fungus which may be harmful.
  • Pets and Animals – Avoid contact with animals that are not pets. Make sure pets have had shots, are in good health, and are bathed regularly.
  • Dirt and Soil – Some patients may become sick from Aspergillus and other germs in dust and dirt.
  • Crowds and Swimming Pools – Some children need to avoid these places to reduce risk of illness.

Think about food safety

Wash hands before preparing and eating foods, and keep food preparation areas clean. Store and cook food properly. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating. Talk to your doctor about any foods to avoid, and follow dietary instructions.  

Infection risk and cancer

Children with weak immune systems are not able to fight off germs as well as people with healthy immune systems. Common illnesses such as RSV or the flu can be very dangerous for children with cancer. Some patients may also be at risk for infection from Aspergillus, a common fungus found in the air. Children with low immunity get infections more easily and have more trouble recovering from infections when they occur.

Reviewed: June 2018