Flu Season Poses Unique Risk to Cancer Patients

November 18, 2019



There are no hard and fast dates for when flu season begins or ends; it can last anywhere from October to as late as May, according to the CDC. The agency says the peak periods for the flu usually occur between December and February, so we’re on the cusp of major flu activity. 

Everybody needs to be wary, but cancer patients face unique challenges. About 650,000 cancer patients receive outpatient chemo and radiation therapy each year and while those treatments can save lives, they also often weaken immune systems, and that opens the door to opportunistic deadly infections. 

Chemo and radiation therapy can lower the count of the white blood cells known as neutrophils, leading to neutropenia. (75% of the body’s white blood cells are neutrophils.) As the Washington Post reports, between 7 and 12 days after getting chemo or radiation treatment cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to infection. 

The CDC provides a handy pocket guidebook for providers-such as infection preventionists-who work with cancer patients. 

The first bit of advice: Be vigilant: Keep an eye on cancer patients and if you suspect that they might have an infection then report it immediately to the proper provider in order speed diagnosis and treatment. 

Hand hygiene: Perhaps there’s a point where that can be overstated, but the CDC hasn’t reached it yet and perhaps never will. You can’t wash your hands too many times. 

Personal protective equipment: Gloves, gowns, facemasks should be worn if there’s any chance of exposure to blood or other body fluids. 

Respiratory infection: If you cannot avoid contact with patients when you have a respiratory infection (or suspect that one is coming on), then wear a mask and, again, wash your hands before and after the interaction. 

Injection safety/medication handling: Prepare the parenteral medication as close as possible to the time of injection. Throw out used needles. Don’t administer medications from single-dose or single-use vials or bags or bottles of intravenous solutions to more than 1 patient. 

Central venous catheter access: Make sure that an appropriate antiseptic agent is properly applied prior to accessing the catheter.

 

Environmental cleaning: Focus on high-touch surfaces when cleaning areas that house patients; that includes chairs and examination tables. Make sure that you’re using the right cleaning product.