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Dealing with infections

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You’ll be at an increased risk of getting an infection as your immune system recovers, which can take up to a year or longer. Infections are caused by viruses, bacteria and fungi. They can happen anywhere in your body but the most common ones are likely to be caused by your central venous catheter (CVC), your respiratory system or your gut.

This webpage covers the following topics:

The nurses and doctors supporting you are very experienced in dealing with infections, so it's good to trust in their care. It's natural to feel anxious about infection after your transplant, but it's important to try to balance this with getting back to a normal life.

Hayley, Anthony Nolan Lead Nurse. You can read her blog on infection control here.

Early signs of infection

It’s important to spot the signs of an infection as early as possible to stop it becoming too severe. You know your body best and you can tell when something isn’t right, so have the confidence to contact your medical team and get checked out.

If you have any of the following symptoms, it could be a sign of infection:

  • A temperature higher than 38°C or a temperature that rises or falls suddenly. Keep a thermometer (in good working order) at home and take your temperature regularly, especially if you are feeling unwell. Some medications, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen and steroids, can mask changes in temperature, so look out for other symptoms too.
  • Chills, a fever or no appetite for food or drink.
  • Diarrhoea, frequent or painful urination, blood in your urine or poo or abdominal pain and cramps.
  • Severe fatigue, bleeding, coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain or severe headaches.

Be aware of what your body is telling you. Tune in to it and recognise when something feels different or off. And tell your clinical nurse specialist straight away to get things checked out.

Steve, who had a stem cell transplant in 2013. You can read his story here.

If you see signs of infection

We’ve all had little niggles that should have been checked out by a doctor or dentist, only for them to be forgotten about in our busy lives. Unfortunately, if problems happen they are unlikely to go away by themselves and will get worse if left untreated.

You should have been given the contact details of a doctor or nurse in your medical team who you can talk to. You can also visit your GP, but if things happen very quickly, you should go straight to A&E. There is a risk of your body’s immune response also causing damage to other parts of your body. This is known as sepsis and if it occurs, you will need immediate medical treatment. This could include intravenous antibodies delivered via a drip directly into your blood stream.

The NHS website has lots of useful information on sepsis and how it’s treated.

Don’t worry about reporting something that turns out to be a false alarm – nobody will be upset with you. It’s more important that concerns are raised so that if treatment is needed, it can be given as quickly as possible.

Treatment

When you see your medical team, they will run tests to find out the cause of your infection. They will then decide on the most suitable treatment or monitor your symptoms for longer. Your treatment might be given as tablets, through a drip, or a nebuliser – a device that allows medication to be inhaled directly.

There could also be times when you are given antibiotics even though you have no signs of infection. This is a prevention that reduces the risk of an infection starting. It’s often called antibacterial prophylaxis.

A virus like the common cold doesn't need treatment, but for other viruses you might need to come into hospital to have a nebuliser. If you have a cough, it could be a bacterial infection and you might need antibiotics.

Hayley, Anthony Nolan Lead Nurse. You can read her blog on coughs and colds here.

Prevention of infection

Infections are a natural part of recovery that can’t always be avoided. However, there are things you can do to reduce the risk. Although you might have to make a few lifestyle changes, you still need to live your life and enjoy it. Being aware of your situation and making sensible choices, while still being careful, will hopefully allow you to do the things you enjoy doing during your recovery.

I am not a believer in locking yourself away in your house to try and avoid infection. personally, I think your mental well being is more important, as is building up your physical strength and getting back into society.

Emma, recipient of two stem cell transplants. You can read her blog on infections here.

In the first six months

General hygiene – Wash your hands or use alcohol gels regularly, especially after using the toilet, handling anything unclean or travelling on public transport. 

Contact – Spending time in crowded places and travelling on public transport should be avoided if possible.

Diet – Stick to fresh food that is washed and cooked properly. You also need to avoid food that’s rich in bacteria, such as blue cheese or yoghurts. More information is available in our diet section.

Oral hygiene – Brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing and using mouthwash will help prevent tooth decay and gum disease. 

Safe sex – Always practise safe sex by using a condom. You should also avoid any sexual practices that put you at risk of infection.

Pets – Although there are many benefits of caring for your pet during recovery, you will have to be very careful around them too. Always wash your hands after touching them and don’t let them lick or jump all over you. Ideally you should avoid their litter tray/waste completely. 

Travel – Avoid travelling to countries or locations where food and water quality aren’t to the highest standards, or where you might encounter tropical diseases. More advice on travelling abroad is available in our travel section.

Long term

Vaccinations – During your transplant your immune system is replaced and you will need to have a new course of vaccinations to protect you from common illnesses such as measles and tuberculosis (TB).

Medication – Your medical team may decide to keep you on prophylactic antibiotics to help reduce the risk of infections developing.

Back to work – Some people return to work about six months to a year after transplant. You’re normally at much less risk of infection at this point, but it’s sensible to take precautions if you can. If you have a job where you’re in contact with the general public a lot, see if you can make changes to your role so you’re less exposed.

Healthy lifestyle – Regular exercise, good diet and vitamin supplements will all help to improve and maintain your general health.

For more information on infections, see our guide Life after transplants: an essential guide to dealing with infections (PDF 4201KB).

Information published: 13/11/18
Next review due: 13/11/21

Related links

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