Infections during and after treatment

Despite taking precautions (see 'Blood cell counts and infection risk'), many people developed infections during or after treatment. Commonly people were advised to tell the hospital at once if their temperature rose above 38C.

7–14 days after treatment (this can vary depending on the drug or combination of drugs used), when the level of white blood cells is at its lowest, people having chemotherapy have a greater risk of picking up infections.

Infections often caused people to be taken into hospital for several days between their chemotherapy treatments. One said she didn't mind being in hospital as she could escape her domestic responsibilities when feeling ill. A few said they had nearly died from their infections. A woman who had developed a good relationship with her clinical team had not liked being admitted to a different hospital when she got an infection. A man who had septicaemia with a high temperature - about 45C - believes he would have died if his wife hadn't helped the nurses to cool him by bathing him with cold flannels through the night.

Just before her last chemotherapy treatment, a woman developed a rash on her abdomen that turned out to be shingles (infection caused by the chickenpox virus) and she was given intravenous antivirals at the same time as her chemotherapy. Having spent four weeks in hospital having a stem cell transplant, a man developed an infection in his heart cavity that caused a heart attack four days after he had been discharged, so he spent a further four weeks in hospital.

Many people had their chemotherapy administered intravenously through a central line (see 'Chemotherapy') and these were common sites of infection. Some had their central lines removed and replaced while others had repeated infections from the same line. One woman's suspect central line couldn't be removed until she no longer needed intravenous antibiotics which required use of the line; all her veins had collapsed from repeated use.

Some people caught the 'superbug' MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) while in hospital. A man who had an operation on his neck to remove a tumour and one of his vertebrae said the wound would not heal because of the infection. He was not told at the time that he had MRSA and was either in hospital or going to hospital every day for six or seven months for antibiotics at the same time as having chemotherapy. 

Infections after treatment

Some people continued to suffer from infections whilst in remission. One man said he would be on antibiotics permanently, others mentioned the importance of having annual flu 'jabs' during remission. A woman who went to her dentist to catch up on fillings that couldn't be done during treatment developed a tooth abscess afterwards and had to be hospitalised. Others developed pneumonia, pleurisy, or shingles. Having kept her hair throughout chemotherapy, a young woman lost much of it and needed skin grafts when she developed scabs on her head from shingles.

A woman whose Hodgkin lymphoma relapsed as non-Hodgkin lymphoma was found to have lasting damage to her lungs from her continuous chest infections, and an immune deficiency. As her father had died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma the doctors were investigating whether her immune deficiency might be genetic and hence a possible cause of her lymphoma.

Last reviewed February 2016.

Last updated May 2012.

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