June 30, 2020

Why You Should Take Fevers Seriously If You Have Cancer

When undergoing cancer treatment, fever is a critical symptom to address

man in bed with fever and cough

A fever may not send most people to the doctor’s office. But if you have cancer, the combination of fever, weakness and pain could mean an infection — and require a visit to the emergency room.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

When a person’s immune system is compromised by cancer and its treatments, it’s harder to recover from even common illnesses. And some of these illnesses can even become life-threatening.

That’s why you need to take special care if you are undergoing cancer treatment and happen to develop signs of infection, including fever, chills, abdominal pain and a productive cough.

If this happens, make sure you:

  1. Call your oncologist immediately — especially if you have a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit (38 C) or higher.
  2. Go to an emergency room, if instructed by your oncologist.
  3. Clearly indicate that you are undergoing cancer treatment.

Conditions that may prompt an ER visit

In terms of urgency, some symptoms are more pressing than others. If you’re experiencing pain, weakness, shortness of breath, vomiting and diarrhea, go to the hospital.

“If a patient feels like they need to be seen, then they should come in,” says Emergency Medicine Director Tom Waters, MD. “You can’t quantify how bad someone should feel before seeking help.”

Advertisement

But there’s one symptom that indisputably requires a trip to the hospital: fever. Everyone who has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy needs immediate attention if they have a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit (38 C) or higher.

Fever, the critical symptom

Chemotherapy can often lead to a reduced white blood cell count, or neutropenia. This condition causes the body to be less effective at fighting off infection. Neutropenic fever is common in those who are getting chemotherapy and it can often signify infection. If you have a weakened immune system, infections need to be treated immediately before they cause greater complications.

“About 5 to 25% of patients receiving chemotherapy will get neutropenic fever,” says hematologist and oncologist Omer Koc, MD. “The more aggressive the chemotherapy, the higher the risk. Age and other underlying illnesses also play a role.”

Treating neutropenic fever

According to Dr. Waters, anyone who has cancer with a fever or other condition that’s an emergency should call their oncologist immediately. The oncologist will determine if they should go directly to an emergency room or to the doctor’s office.

If you go to an emergency room, you should clearly tell them up front that you are undergoing cancer treatment. It will make a difference in how you are triaged.

Advertisement

“A healthy patient with a fever and cough might get a flu swab or throat swab or chest X-ray,” explains Dr. Waters. “We may give them acetaminophen and send them home to rest. But someone who has cancer with the same symptoms will need a more intense evaluation to find the source of their infection.”

Dr. Waters says they’ll keep anyone who has cancer in isolation to prevent exposure to any new infections while they do a culture of their blood and urine to check for bacteria.

“We’ll start them on antibiotics right away until we identify the cause of their fever. We can always stop the antibiotics later if we find they don’t have an infection,” Dr. Waters explains.

The important thing if you have cancer and develop a fever is to get medical attention right away.

Related Articles

Child in bed sick with parent's hand in foreground holding thermometer.
September 10, 2023
Too Sick for School? How To Decide if You Should Keep Your Kid Home

Vomiting and fevers are a hard no — other symptoms are a judgment call

Parent checking temperature of small sickly child in bed.
June 20, 2023
Scarlet Fever and Strep Have Been on the Rise: What Should You Know — and Do — About It?

Awareness and prompt treatment can help keep your family safe

person blowing their nose outside
May 16, 2023
Allergies Don’t Cause a Fever — At Least, Not Directly

Infections like sinusitis, colds, flu and COVID-19 can cause a fever, but allergies aren’t infections

Teething baby crying
April 30, 2023
Teething Doesn’t Cause Fevers — and Other Myths To Sink Your Teeth Into

Drooling, chewing and mild fussing are the most common baby teething symptoms

Child with fever has wet washcloth on forehead.
April 26, 2023
Never Use Rubbing Alcohol To Bring Down a Fever

It can cause alcohol poisoning and other serious health issues, especially in kids

parent caring for child's fever in bed
April 16, 2023
How To Treat Your Child’s Fever Naturally (and When To Let It Run Its Course)

It’s important not to give them fever-reducing medications right off the bat

checking temperature with a digital thermometer
February 20, 2023
What Is a Normal Body Temperature?

There’s no one answer, as your temperature fluctuates throughout the day and your life

Someone cooking chicken noodle soup.
February 1, 2023
Fact or Fiction: Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever

The advice dates to 1574, but it doesn’t quite meet modern medical guidelines

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad