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Fever and Signs of Infection

What are Signs and Symptoms of Infection?

For a childhood cancer patient, an infection can be life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency.

Treatments such as chemotherapy can affect the immune system. Cancer-fighting drugs work by killing the body’s fastest-growing cells, which include healthy cells along with cancer cells. When the number of infection-fighting white blood cells called neutrophils is decreased, it results in a condition called neutropenia. Patients with neutropenia cannot fight infections well. They can become seriously ill very quickly. It is important to watch for signs of an infection, so it can be treated right away.

Neutropenic fever in a child with cancer can be life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. A nurse takes the temperature of a young patient while her mom stands near.

Some childhood cancer treatments affect the immune system. Fever is one symptom of infection.

Signs and symptoms of infection:

  • Fever – Sometimes this is the only symptom
  • Coughing or fast breathing
  • Blisters, rash, or skin sores
  • Runny nose
  • Earache
  • Loose stools
  • Sore throat
  • Stomach pain
  • Sores or pain around the rectum
  • Headache and stiff neck

What to Do If Your Child Has a Fever or Signs of Infection

Whether you are at the hospital or at home, tell a medical care provider right way if you notice signs of infection in your child.

  • If it is during the day and you are close to your child’s cancer center, call your child’s care team or primary clinic.
  • If it is after hours or the weekend, follow your hospital’s procedure for after-hours emergencies. You should tell your primary clinic or the doctor on call as soon as you are aware that your child has a fever.
  • If you are not close to your child’s hospital, call your child’s local care provider or go to the emergency room at your local hospital.
  • Be sure to tell the care providers that your child is a cancer patient and where he or she is being treated. They also need to know if your child has a venous access device and if your child has been receiving chemotherapy or other drugs that suppress the immune system.
  • If you go to a doctor or hospital at home, call your child’s primary clinic or care team to give them an update on your child’s condition as soon as you can.


Fever varies for patients depending on their age:

  • In a child younger than 3 months, a fever is an under-the-arm temperature of 99.4 degrees F (37.4 degrees C) or higher.
  • In patients 3 months and older:
    • An oral (by mouth) temperature of 100.9 degrees F (38.3 degrees C) or higher
    • An oral temperature of 100.4 degrees F (38.0 degrees C) or higher that persists for 1 hour
    • An under-the-arm (axillary) temperature of 99.9 degrees F (37.7 degrees C); or
    • An under-the-arm temperature of 99.4 degrees F (37.4 degrees C) or higher that persists for 1 hour.

Ways to Prevent Infection

Parents and other caregivers are encouraged to take steps to prevent infections from occurring.

  • Patients and anyone around them should wash their hands with soap and water often.
  • Practice good personal hygiene.
  • Keep patient areas clean.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid taking the patient’s temperature rectally.

Reviewed: August 2018