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Symptoms of infections

Infections can sometimes be life threatening. A fever may be the first or only sign of infection. But some infections may not present with fever and it could be another symptom.

Contact your 24 hour advice line immediately if you've had cancer treatment recently and think you might have an infection.

Even if it turns out that you don’t have an infection, it’s better to find out for sure than wait for things to get more serious.

Signs and symptoms

You could have one or more of the following symptoms if you're getting an infection:

  • a temperature of above 37.5C or below 36C
  • your skin feels hot to touch
  • feeling cold or shivery
  • aching muscles
  • feeling tired
  • stinging or pain when you pass urine
  • diarrhoea
  • being sick (vomiting)
  • headache
  • feeling confused or dizzy
  • sore mouth or pain when swallowing
  • coughing or shortness of breath
  • pain, redness, discharge, swelling or heat at the site of a wound or intravenous line such as a central line or PICC line
  • pain anywhere in your body that was not there before your treatment

An increase in your temperature to 37.5C or higher might be the first clue that you have an infection. Call your 24 hour advice line immediately you might need injections of antibiotics to control the infection.

Medicines that mask or bring down a temperature

Some types of painkiller such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are anti pyretics, meaning they bring down temperatures. Taking these may disguise that you have an infection. Taking steroids can also hide the signs of infection.

Call your 24 hour advice line if you feel unwell but don’t have a temperature.

What you can do

There are some ways to reduce your risk of getting an infection when your white cell count is low. These include:

  • taking a bath or shower daily
  • washing your hands – particularly before eating, after using the toilet, if you sneeze or cough
  • brushing your teeth and using mouth wash
  • making sure cooked food is properly heated through to kill off bacteria
  • not sharing things like drinking cups and cutlery
  • washing all fruit and salads well in clean water
  • avoiding contact with anyone who has (or may have been) exposed to chicken pox
  • avoiding contact with anyone who has a cold or feels unwell
  • avoiding crowds if you can - go to places at less busy times
  • wearing disposable gloves to pick up pet poo – preferably ask someone else do it
  • wearing gloves when gardening
Last reviewed: 
02 Aug 2019
  • Neutropenic sepsis: prevention and management in people with cancer
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2012.

  • Acute Oncology Initial Management Guidelines. (Version 2.0)
    UK Oncology Nursing Society (UKONS), March 2018.

  • Management of Febrile Neutropaenia: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines.
    J Klastersky and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2016. Volume 27, Issue 5, Pages v111 - v118.

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser 
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

  • Neutropaenic sepsis: prevention, identification and treatment.
    C Warnock
    Nursing Standard, 2016. Volume 30, Issue 35, Pages 51 – 60.

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in. 

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