Neutropenia is a condition in which there are abnormally low levels of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that helps prevent and fight infections. If it occurs, chemotherapy-induced neutropenia typically happens 3-7 days following receiving chemotherapy. The severity depends on the type and dose of the chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy-induced neutropenia—and the resulting increased risk of infection—can be prevented by the use of drugs that stimulate cells in bone marrow to produce additional white blood cells. The white blood cell boosters approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are filgrastim (Neupogen), pegfilgrastim (Neulasta) and sargramostim (Leukine).
General signs of a possible infection include fever, fatigue, cough or diarrhea. If you had surgery, be on the alert for redness and/or swelling at the incision site. If treated by external radiation therapy, open skin or painful areas could indicate the presence of an infection.
Contact your health care team right away if you experience any of these symptoms. Your doctor will recommend a treatment approach tailored to the type of infection and your individual circumstances.
Viral infections are passed from person to person. They include the common cold, the flu, herpes, coronaviruses, mononucleosis (mono), measles, viral pneumonia, viral hepatitis, viral meningitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Most often, treating viral infections focuses on relieving symptoms until the immune system can get rid of the infection. There are antiviral drugs for certain types of viral infections, including HIV, herpes and hepatitis C.
Antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections and should not be used. See “What is antimicrobial resistance?” in the Frequently Asked Questions section.
Bacteria are single-celled organisms found in air, soil and water, as well as on (and in) our bodies. Most of the bacteria in our bodies is not harmful and some are actually helpful—for example, bacteria in the digestive tract help in the digestion of food. But some bacteria can cause an infection.
Here are examples of bacterial infections: * Bacterial food poisoning (e.g., E. coli, Salmonella) * Bacterial meningitis * Botulism * Lyme disease * Pneumococcal pneumonia * Strep throat * Tuberculosis * Urinary tract infections (UTIs) * Whooping cough
Bacterial infections are usually treated with antibiotics, medications that can either destroy bacteria or stop them from multiplying. The “class” (type) of antibiotic prescribed depends on the kind of bacteria causing the infection.
If your doctor prescribes a course of antibiotics, it’s important to take all of the medication even if you begin to feel better after a few days.
Fungi are a group of organisms that include yeasts, molds and mushrooms. Fungi produce spores, microscopic particles that allow them to reproduce. Fungi spores are widespread in the environment, and people breathe in or come in contact with them every day without getting sick. However, people with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of developing an infection from fungi spores.
The symptoms of a fungal infection vary depending on the type of fungi, but typically include red, itchy, inflamed and/or cracking skin. Fungal infections are often treated with creams, gels and lotions that are applied directly to the skin. Some infections are treated with prescription antifungal medication taken orally (by mouth) and corticosteroids. It is also important to keep the affected area dry.
There are certain types of fungal infections more commonly seen in people with weakened immune systems. Those types include:
- Aspergillosis, caused by a common mold than can live both outdoors and indoors.
- Candidiasis, a yeast infection commonly seen in the mouth and throat (also called “thrush”) or in the vagina.
- Invasive candidiasis, a more serious form of candidiasis that can affect the blood, heart, brain, bones and other parts of the body.
- Mucormycosis, a rare but serious infection caused by a group of molds called mucormycetes.
- Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), which causes inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs.
Treatment depends on the specific type of fungal infection and its severity.
There are certain side effects that may occur across different treatment approaches. Following are tips for managing these side effects. Your health care team may have additional guidance for your specific treatment type.
Managing Digestive Tract Symptoms Nausea and Vomiting
- Eat small, frequent meals.
- Avoid food with strong odors, as well as overly sweet, greasy, fried or highly seasoned food.
- Eat meals cold or at room temperature, which often makes food more easily tolerated.
- Having something in your stomach when you take medication may help ease nausea.
- Drink plenty of water. Ask your doctor about using drinks such as Gatorade, which provide electrolytes. Electrolytes are body salts that must stay in balance for cells to work properly.
- Over-the-counter medicines such as loperamide (Imodium A-D and others) and prescription drugs are available for diarrhea but should be used only if necessary and with your health care team’s knowledge and approval. If the diarrhea is bad enough that you need medicine, contact a member of your health care team.
- Choose foods that contain soluble fiber, like beans, oat cereals and flaxseed, and high-pectin foods such as peaches, apples, oranges, bananas and apricots.
- Avoid food high in refined sugar and those sweetened with sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and mannitol.
Loss of appetite
Eating small meals throughout the day is an easy way to take in more protein and calories, which will help maintain your weight. Try to include protein in every meal. Nutrition shakes or protein drinks are a way to add calories to your daily diet.
To keep from feeling full early, avoid liquids with meals or take only small sips (unless you need liquids to help swallow). Drink most of your liquids between meals.
Keep high-calorie, high-protein snacks on hand such as hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter, cheese, ice cream, granola bars, liquid nutritional supplements, puddings, nuts, canned tuna and trail mix.
If you are struggling to maintain your appetite, talk to your health care team about whether appetite-building medication could be right for you.
There are a number of options for pain relief, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. It’s important to talk to a member of your health care team before taking any over-the-counter medication to determine if it is safe and will not interfere with your treatment. Many pain medications can lead to constipation. Your doctor can recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications that help to avoid or manage constipation.
Physical therapy, acupuncture and massage may also be of help in managing your pain. Consult with a member of your health care team before beginning any of these activities.
Fatigue (extreme tiredness not helped by sleep) is one of the most common side effects of many cancer treatments. If you are very fatigued while on treatment, your doctor may lower the dose of the drug(s), as long as it does not make the treatment less effective. If you are experiencing fatigue, talk to your doctor about whether taking a smaller dose is right for you.
There are a number of other tips for reducing fatigue:
Take several short naps or breaks during the day.
Take walks or do some light exercise, if possible.
Try easier or shorter versions of the activities you enjoy.
Ask your family or friends to help you with tasks you find difficult or tiring.
There are also prescription medications that may help, such as modafinil. Your health care team can provide guidance on whether medication is the right approach for your individual circumstances.