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Patient education: Neutropenia and fever in people being treated for cancer (The Basics)

Patient education: Neutropenia and fever in people being treated for cancer (The Basics)

What is neutropenia? — Neutropenia is a condition in which blood does not have enough cells called "neutrophils." Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell. They help the body fight infections.

Neutropenia can happen to people being treated for cancer. That's because the medicines used to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing (called "chemotherapy") impair the body's ability to make all blood cells, including neutrophils.

People who get neutropenia because of their cancer treatment can get infections easily. In many cases, the only sign of these infections is fever. This is called "neutropenic fever" or "febrile neutropenia." Fever in someone with neutropenia can be very serious.

How is neutropenic fever treated? — Many people are treated in the hospital with antibiotics that go into an IV. Some people can instead go home and take antibiotic pills after being seen in the clinic or after having a short stay in the hospital.

If you have neutropenic fever, start antibiotics as soon as possible. Any delay in starting treatment could lead to a widespread infection or even death.

Can neutropenic fever be prevented? — In some cases, doctors prescribe antibiotics to people who are at high risk of infection before they get a fever. Also, in some cases, doctors can prescribe medicines that help the body make more neutrophils. But these medicines are not appropriate for everyone who is treated for cancer.

If you are being treated for cancer, the most important thing you can do is protect yourself from getting an infection. You should:

Wash your hands often with soap and water. You can also use alcohol hand rubs.

Avoid crowded places and people (especially children) who are sick.

Do not share food, cups, utensils, or other personal items, such as toothbrushes.

Shower or bathe every day, and use lotion to keep your skin from getting dry and cracked.

Cook meat, eggs, and fish all of the way through to kill any germs.

Carefully wash raw fruits and vegetables before eating them.

Wear gloves when handling waste from dogs, cats, or other pets. Wash your hands right after.

Use gloves to garden, or avoid gardening.

Brush your teeth and gums every day with a soft toothbrush. If your doctor or nurse recommends it, use a mouthwash to prevent mouth sores.

Avoid crunchy, hard, salty, or acidic foods if you have mouth sores and these foods cause pain.

Keep surfaces (such as kitchen counters) in your home clean.

Get the flu shot every year.

Avoid going outside barefoot.

Your doctor or nurse might give you other suggestions to help prevent infections, too.

When should I see a doctor? — If you received chemotherapy within the last 6 weeks, or if you have been told that you have neutropenia, it's very important to pay attention to any signs of infection.

Go to the emergency department right away if you:

Have a fever of 101.0°F (38.3°C) or higher, taken by oral thermometer, at any time

Have a fever of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher, taken by oral thermometer, and it lasts for 1 hour or longer

Tell your doctor or nurse if you get any of the following symptoms:

Chills or sweating

Sore throat, sores in the mouth, or toothache

Stomach pain

Pain in the anal area

Pain or burning when urinating, or frequent urination

Diarrhea or sores around the anus

Cough or shortness of breath

Redness, swelling, or pain of your skin, especially around a cut, wound, or place where you had a tube in your vein (called an "IV")

Unusual vaginal discharge or itching

More on this topic

Patient education: Neutropenia (The Basics)
Patient education: When to worry about a fever in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Managing loss of appetite and weight loss with cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Nausea and vomiting with cancer treatment (The Basics)
Patient education: When your cancer treatment makes you tired (The Basics)
Patient education: Managing pain when you have cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Hair loss from cancer treatment (The Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Oct 01, 2023.
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