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Symptoms of infections

Infections can sometimes be life threatening. Contact your doctor urgently if you've had cancer treatment recently and think you might have an infection.

A fever may be the first or only sign of infection. Do not wait for other signs before you contact your doctor. Even if it turns out that you don’t have an infection, it is 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 are getting an infection:

  • a temperature of more than 38C
  • your skin feels hot to touch
  • feeling cold or shivery
  • aching muscles
  • feeling tired
  • stinging or pain when you pass urine
  • diarrhoea
  • 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 38C or higher might be the first clue that you have an infection. You should contact your GP or cancer centre 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.

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:

  • making sure cooked food is properly heated through to kill off bacteria
  • washing all fruit and salads well in clean water
  • avoiding contact with anyone who has (or may have been) exposed to chicken pox
Last reviewed: 
22 Jun 2017
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser 
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Management of febrile neutropenia: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines

    J de Naurois and others, 2010

    Annals of Oncology, Volume 21, Supplement 5

  • Neutropenic sepsis: prevention and management of neutropenic sepsis in cancer patients

    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), September 2012

Information and help

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