Staying Germ-Free During Chemotherapy

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One important concern of patients undergoing chemotherapy is how to avoid germs. Germs include both viruses and bacteria: tiny organisms that enter your body, destroy tissue, and/or set off your body’s immune system. They can cause a variety of symptoms, from coughing and sneezing to rashes, fever and headaches.

Although most people who get sick are fine in a few days, you may run into complications if you have cancer, or are being treated for it. You can reduce the risk of infection by understanding how germs live and spread.

Germs are contagious; you get them from other people, or from the things they have been around. Some are coughed or sneezed into the air, others you get by direct contact, such as kissing and hugging. Sometimes you “pick up” germs by touching something contaminated and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Germs can survive on hard surfaces like telephones, keyboards and ATM machines, as well as stair rails, doorknobs, faucets, and other places people tend to touch with their hands. Some viruses can live outside the body as long as 30 days. Others can survive even after 10 minutes in boiling water. People can be contagious without showing any symptoms.

Still, you don't always need to go into isolation! Here are some of the steps you can take to avoid germs:

  • Wash your hands often and try not to touch your eyes or nose. Wash with warm water and lots of soap, taking care to wash the back of your hands as well as the tips of your fingers.
  • Do not share towels, washcloths, toothbrushes, or other personal items. Rinse your toothbrush in antiseptic mouthwash after each use.
  • Do not eat from other people’s plates, or share eating utensils, cups, etc.
  • Do not shake hands or kiss anyone who has a cold. If you have a lot of contact with the public, wash your hands more frequently.
  • Ask those around you to blow their noses, sneeze and cough into tissues rather than handkerchiefs. Throw the tissues away in a closed container or flush them down the toilet.
  • If you work with others in a small or enclosed space, try to keep a window open or cracked.
  • Keep your lips and nostrils moist with lip balm and saline spray (available over the counter). This helps because viruses often enter the body through “cracks” in the mucous membrane when these areas become dry. This is also helpful in airplanes and other air conditioned places where opening a window is not an option.
  • Wipe kitchen or bathroom sinks and counter surfaces with soapy water or disinfectant. Dry with a paper towel if possible. Do not use a sponge or washrag on more than one surface unless you first rinse it with soap and hot water. Germs might “travel.”
  • Close the toilet seat before flushing to reduce the amount of airborne bacteria.

Finally, try to keep your immune system strong by eating well, getting plenty of rest and by exercising as much as your doctor recommends. These suggestions will help you to stay “germ-free” as possible. Be sure to ask your doctor or oncologist if you have any questions.

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