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Cancer and the Flu: Reduce Risks for those around You

For people living with cancer, valuable time may be lost because of flu complications and postponed treatment.

No one wants to get the flu. But people with cancer and cancer survivors are more likely to get sicker from the flu and they can develop serious complications, including pneumonia, which can lead to hospitalization or death.

Because we can be contagious a few days before flu symptoms appear, it's easy to unknowingly expose others around you– a neighbor, a co-worker, someone in line at the grocery store. So if you haven't gotten a flu shot to protect yourself, do it for someone around you who might be at risk.

Cancer and the flu: risks and precautions

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow/stem cell transplant weaken the immune system, which protects the body from infection and disease. Because of this, patients learn early in their treatment to be conscientious about reducing infection risks: hand washing, coughing etiquette, avoiding crowded places like shopping malls or restaurants during flu season. And getting a flu shot.

 "We really haven't seen flu complications in our patients this season," said Anna Schaal, a nurse practitioner in the Norris Cotton Cancer Center.  "We think in part this may be because we urged our patients and their family members early on to get flu shots. Also, we work hard to educate patients about how to reduce risk of any infection, as their treatment may have to be interrupted if they get sick."

Dangers of the flu and cancer

Most people who care for patients with cancer understand how serious an infection can be.  As well as life-threatening complications, valuable time may be lost in postponed treatment. Nearly 100 percent of DHMC employees got flu shots this year. While it is best to get shots before flu season begins, there's still time—flu season could last into March. 

Do your part to reduce flu risks for those with cancer

Flu is thought to spread primarily through droplets that travel through the air when a person infected with a flu virus coughs or sneezes. These droplets can infect you if they land in your mouth or nose, or if you touch an object they have fallen on and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.
You can take the following steps to reduce your own risk and also protect those around you: The Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests the following good health habits:

  • Take time to get a flu vaccine.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Try to stay at least six feet away from people who appear ill.
  • If you are sick with a flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities. Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine. Keep away from others as much as possible to keep from making them sick.
  • Be prepared in case you get sick with a supply of over-the-counter medicines, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and tissues.

January 28, 2013