Flu and Cancer

For most people, influenza (the flu virus) is a simple chest infection that comes and goes without much fanfare. For cancer patients, however, the flu virus can be extremely dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have noted that individuals with cancer have a higher risk of complications if they catch the flu, including hospitalization and even death.

Cancer patients have a compromised immune system meaning that their body’s defense system is unable to work 100% effectively leaving them susceptible to catching bugs and germs. What makes the situation even worse is that, once infected, their bodies find it much harder to actually fight off the infection itself.

That's why it's important that cancer patients and survivors do all they can to prevent catching the flu in the first place. This post offers some suggestions on making sure you don’t get sick.

Avoid Infected People and Places

Whether you have cancer or not, a good rule of thumb to help prevent catching the flu virus is to avoid people who are currently unwell (i.e., those with a cold, flu, or stomach bug). This may seem obvious, but not everyone makes good decisions when it comes to exposing others to their illnesses. You have to look out for yourself, even if it means avoiding family, friends, and other loved ones who could make you ill.

Additionally, try to minimize the amount of time spent in large crowds or public places where the risk of catching an infection is also high. Many people associate the flu with cold season, but it has more to do with the fact that people congregate inside, rather than outside, making it easier for germs to spread from person to person. The more you stay away from large crowds and those who are likely to have the illness, the more success you'll have in avoiding it yourself.

Vaccinate – Yourself AND Your Family

Cancer patients are at a high risk of catching the flu and developing serious complications from the flu, which means they should always get a flu vaccine. The American Cancer Society advises that cancer patients get the flu shot, rather than a nasal spray, as the nasal spray is made with a live virus that could lead to a full-blown illness due to the patient’s compromised immune system.

However, it is not enough for a cancer patient to get a flu shot on their own. It's just as important for family members and close contacts to get the vaccination as well, according to recommendations by the CDC. If those around you are unwell, there is an increased risk of becoming unwell yourself. Protecting the entire family is the only way to minimize the risk as much as humanly possible.

Keep Surfaces Clean and Disinfected

This sounds like a simple prevention technique but its importance can't be understated. Routinely cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects like doorknobs, cell phones, tablets, keyboards, remotes, and phones can help get rid of germs before they become a problem.

Specifically pay attention to objects and surfaces that are shared and touched by multiple people many times a day. These are the areas where new germs are most likely to congregate and be passed along. That said, it’s also good to do a deep clean every now and then. Don’t just wait until spring cleaning time to get between the cracks!

Practice Good Health Habits

Basic good health practices should not be forgotten or overlooked. Patients with cancer or those receiving chemotherapy may be restricted in their movements and activities. Nonetheless, where possible, try to do the following:

  • Eat nutritious foods and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get an adequate amount of sleep each night to help your body recharge and build up strength to fight viruses.
  • Try to maintain a moderate level of physical activity, which can boost immune system function.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, which helps remove toxins and improve overall body function.

If in doubt about your diet, speak to an oncologist or a licensed dietician first. All of these small interventions can make a big difference to your overall health, which will help keep infections at bay.

Antiviral Drugs

Antiviral drugs can be taken immediately after patients have the very first symptoms of the flu or come into close contact with someone that has the flu. Antiviral drugs can lessen the severity of the flu and may help prevent some complications.

Be aware that antiviral drugs are not necessarily for everyone. Speak to your doctor to find out if you're eligible to receive them.

The CDC recommends two antivirals, Tamiflu® (oseltamivir) & Relenza® (zanamivir), for treatment of the flu. These antivirals work best when started within 48 hours of symptom onset.

Make a Sick Plan

Before even getting sick, it is a good idea to make a plan in advance with your doctor about what steps you should immediately take if you get the flu or another illness unrelated to your cancer. The plan can include information such as:

  • What signs and symptoms to watch out for.
  • When you should call your doctor or seek emergency care.
  • Whether you are eligible for antiviral medication, and how to get it quickly, if needed.
  • How long to stay home after the flu has passed.

In general, cancer patients with flu symptoms should notify their doctor immediately. It is also a good idea to stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever has subsided.

Staying Healthy During Flu Season

Having cancer is bad enough – there’s no need to add flu to the mix!

Given the dangers involved with the compromised immune systems, side effects, and other potential complications of cancer treatment, it’s best to stay as healthy as possible. Having a good overall health is one way to improve prognosis and extend your life expectancy. So take care of yourself and be sure to protect yourself!