An individual who is immunocompromised or immunosuppressed has a weakened immune system and a reduced ability to fight other diseases and infections, such as the common cold. This can be caused by cancer as well as by various treatments, including chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Other diseases and conditions, such as AIDS, can also lead to immunosuppression.
Not all cancer patients are immunocompromised. Patients diagnosed with a blood cancer (lymphoma, leukemia, or multiple myeloma, for example) are at a higher risk than other patients because the cancers themselves impair the immune system. Patients who undergo a bone marrow transplant or are taking immune suppressing drugs may also need to take certain precautions to stay as healthy as possible.
“If you’re concerned, make sure to speak with your oncologist as they’ll be able to tell you how to decrease your risk for infection,” says Lindsey Robert Baden, MD, of Dana-Farber’s Infectious Diseases Service.
Here are a few tips to follow if you’re immunocompromised.
One of the best things both patients and caregivers can do is be fully vaccinated. This is something Baden encourages everyone to be proactive about. If you’re not sure whether you’re up to date, a good starting point is to speak with your primary care doctor.
Patients who are not vaccinated prior to their diagnosis or before they start particular treatments may not be able to receive certain vaccines afterwards. If this is the case, it is even more important for everyone who will be coming in contact with the patient to be vaccinated (spouses, caregivers, children, others at home, etc.).
Avoid exposures, when possible
Another proactive approach immunosuppressed patients should take is to avoid areas of high risk for exposure to infectious pathogens. For example, as of May 2019, a measles outbreak is ongoing in Rockland County, New York; those who are unvaccinated for measles should either get vaccinated or, if you are unable to do so, minimize travel to this area.
The same principle can be applied to other, more common infections. Flu season generally peaks between December and February. If you are unable to get a flu shot, try to avoid public places like the mall during these months, where active infective transmission is more likely.
Baden also encourages patients and their caregivers to be aware of what’s being reported in their area. If your community is suffering from an outbreak of a specific transmissible infectious disease, patients will want to minimize their exposures. It may be wise to stay home until the risk has been resolved.
Practice good hygiene
Regardless of whether you have cancer, it’s important to practice good hygiene. Make sure to wash your hands regularly and try to avoid exposure to people who might be coughing or sneezing. While these practices won’t prevent you from contracting an infectious disease completely, they can decrease the risk.
What to do if you think you’ve been infected
Despite your best efforts, you may come into contact with someone who is sick. Most of the time, you won’t have to do anything. However, if they have a confirmed case of an infectious disease (such as the flu), it’s important to reach out to your oncologist. They will be able to help determine the best course of action, and in the case of the flu, offer antiviral drugs to prevent infection.