Tips to Avoid Germs When You Have Cancer

Cancer and cancer treatments can weaken your immune system and make it hard for it to protect your body against germs. Chemotherapy, for example, can lower the number of white blood cells you have. Because their job is to stop infections, it makes it tougher for your body to fight germs.

Some things that can make it easier for you to get an infection include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor nutrition
  • Cancer that affects the blood or lymph nodes, such as leukemia or lymphoma
  • Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body

But you can do a few things to protect yourself.

Wash your hands. Do it often, and use soap and water. Wash them before you eat and before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Always clean up after you go to the bathroom, sneeze, cough, or blow your nose. Other times to wash: after you handle trash, go to a public place, or touch an animal. Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you in case you can't get to soap and water when you're out and about.

Eat a well-balanced diet. Ask your doctor if you can eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Some doctors say it’s OK as long as you wash the produce very well. Others say it's safer to just skip them. Stay away from raw meats, shellfish, and eggs. It may also be smart to avoid foods that have been linked to infection outbreaks in the past, like raw sprouts, berries, and fresh salsa.

Don't eat deli foods, free food samples, or yogurt and ice cream products from soft-serve machines. Skip foods bought from self-serve or bulk bins. Don't buy dented cans or pre-cut fruits and veggies.

Be careful around people. If you know that someone has a fever, cold, flu, or any other infection, stay away from them until they feel better. It's also best to skip large groups of people, so avoid shopping, schools, traveling, and crowds. If you do go out in public, use cleaning wipes before you touch door handles, elevator buttons, ATM keypads, or any other surface used by a lot of people.

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Take care of your body. Take a shower or bath every day. Pay special attention to your feet, armpits, and other sweaty areas. When you're done, use lotion so your skin doesn't get dry and crack. Consider using an electric shaver instead of a razor so you don't cut yourself. Brush your teeth twice a day with a soft toothbrush. Ask if it's OK to floss gently. Don't use alcohol-based mouthwashes -- your doctor or dentist may give you a special mouthwash.

Use gloves. Be careful when you garden or do housework. Wear gloves so you don’t hurt your hands or pick up germs from the soil. Use caution when you handle sharp things like scissors, knives, or gardening tools.

Don't share. Don't use the same glasses, utensils, or food as others. Don't share towels, toothbrushes, or makeup, either.

Watch what you touch. Try not to change diapers. If you do, wash your hands as soon as possible when you’re done. Don't clean up after your pet in the yard, and don't touch dirt that could have animal droppings in it. Let someone else change the litter boxes, clean the birdcage, or clean the fish or turtle tanks.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 23, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Preventing Infections in People With Cancer," "Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment."

PreventingCancerInfections.org: "Understanding Your Risk for Infection During Chemotherapy."

American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Infection."

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