How Do Cancer Patients Get Treated for Colds?

How do cancer patients get treated for colds? Learn about safe cold remedies and managing symptoms during cancer treatment from medical experts.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu affected 37 million Americans in 2023. About half of them got so sick they had to see a doctor.1 For people with cancer, catching a cold or the flu can be very dangerous. Their immune system is often weak from the cancer and its treatments. This makes them more likely to get sick from viruses. They are also at a higher risk of severe illness from the flu.

Says Dr. Francesca Torriani from UC San Diego Health (California), nearly anyone can catch a cold or the flu during flu season. This season is at its worst between December and February.1 But, if you have cancer or are helping someone in cancer treatment, the risk is even higher. You are more likely to get really sick from the flu or complications from a cold.

Key Takeaways

  • Cancer patients have a higher risk of contracting viruses and infections due to weakened immune systems from treatment.
  • Prompt medical attention is crucial when cancer patients experience cold or flu symptoms to prevent complications.
  • Preventive measures like good hygiene, a nutritious diet, and vaccinations can help support the immune system during cancer treatment.
  • Specific cold and flu remedies may be recommended for cancer patients to manage symptoms and avoid worsening illness.
  • Emotional support and self-care are important for coping with colds during the challenges of cancer treatment.

Understanding Colds and Weakened Immunity

People getting chemotherapy may catch colds and flu easier. This is because chemotherapy weakens their immune system.2 It fights cancer by destroying cancer cells. But, it can also damage healthy cells. This can lower the production of white blood cells in the bone marrow.3 White blood cells help the body fight off germs.

Increased Susceptibility to Infections

Chemotherapy can cause a low number of white blood cells, called neutrophils.3 Without enough white blood cells, the body becomes an easy target for germs.2 Falling sick can quickly get serious. This is why telling your doctor at the first sign of illness is crucial.

Chemotherapy’s Impact on the Immune System

3 Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and steroids can make the immune system weak.3 They reduce the number of bone marrow’s white blood cells. This temporary weakness makes infections a bigger risk.3 Chemotherapy, targeted drugs, and certain radiotherapies can drop neutrophil counts.3 Low neutrophils mean infections can be very harmful.

Risks of Colds for Cancer Patients

2 The immune system gets weaker with chemotherapy. This increases the chance of getting a cold or flu.2 For people on chemotherapy, the flu and COVID-19 are a major threat. Both can be life-threatening.2 Infection symptoms can also affect the timing of chemotherapy.

Signs and Symptoms of Colds

You might have signs like a fever above 100.4° F1, sneezing, or a runny nose. You could also feel a sore throat, cough, or chest tightness. Post-nasal drip, mild headache, and body aches are common too.

It’s sometimes tough to know if it’s a cold or the flu. Both can make you feel bad. The flu includes high fever, cough, and body aches. But you might not get a sore throat or runny nose with the flu.

If your symptoms showed up fast, it might be the flu. Cold signs start slowly. If the flu seems possible, see a doctor.

Distinguishing Colds from Flu and COVID-19

The flu is most active from late December through February, which is crucial for people fighting cancer1. Cancer patients can get sick easier because cancer treatments weaken their immune systems1.

Knowing the flu, cold, and COVID-19 differences is key. The flu often means a higher fever and worse aches than a cold. COVID-19 is special; it can cause loss of taste or smell. This is rare with the flu or colds.

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Importance of Early Diagnosis

If you get a cold while on chemotherapy, call your doctor right away.1 Infections can be really bad for those with weak immune systems. Colds, flu, or COVID can be life-threatening for them.1 If you feel sick, call your doctor fast. If they’re not available, go to the ER for quick help.

Seeking Medical Attention Promptly

Colds can be very dangerous if you’re on chemo with a weak immune system.1 Call your doctor at the first sign of feeling sick. If they’re not there, go to the ER for help.

Cold Treatment Options for Cancer Patients

The treatment for your infection during chemotherapy depends on its cause and severity.1 If it’s bacterial, you’ll get an antibiotic. If a virus or fungus causes it, you’ll take antiviral or antifungal drugs. This treatment usually goes on for 7 to 14 days.

If you’re not better in 3 to 5 days, your doctor might change your medicine.

Prescription Antiviral Medications

Since viruses cause most colds, antibiotics don’t work.1 The best ways to feel better are resting and drinking lots of liquids.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

There are also medicines you can buy without a prescription. They help with cold symptoms like pain, stuffy noses, and coughs. Always ask your doctor before using new medicine. Some could affect your cancer treatment or be harmful.

cancer patient cold treatment

Preventing Colds During Chemotherapy

Hygiene is key, especially for those with chemotherapy.2 Keep yourself safe by washing hands lots and bathing daily. Watch out for cuts and avoid pet-related tasks.2

Nutritious Diet and Exercise

Eating well, resting enough, and staying active help your body fight off sickness.2 Exercising can make your immune system stronger, studies have found.2 People with chemotherapy often have trouble sleeping, but relaxation exercises can help you sleep better.4

Vaccinations for Flu and COVID-19

Your doctor might say you should get a flu and COVID-19 shot. These vaccinations can protect you during treatment.2 Yet, not everyone can build a strong defense with vaccines, especially those with cancer.1

Managing Specific Cold Symptoms

For cancer patients getting chemo, beating cold signs is key. It keeps them healthy and away from more problems.4 Ease a sore throat by sucking on ice chips or using numbing sprays. Drinking warm stuff and salt water gargles work too.4

Sore Throat Relief

Soothing a sore throat helps a lot during a cold.4 Chewing ice, popsicles, or special lozenges can ease the ache. Also, warm drinks and salt water gargles make it better.4

Cough and Chest Tightness Remedies

Cancer patients can find coughs and chest tightness hard to battle. To make it better, increase the room’s humidity. Enjoy lozenges, hard candies, or add honey to a hot drink.4

Dealing with Stuffy Nose and Sinus Pain

Stuffiness and sinus pain make breathing tough and cause pain. Start by putting a warm cloth on your nose and forehead. Use a decongestant and saline spray. Humidify the space more.4

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you feel really sick with a high fever and shaking chills, call your doctor. Also, if you have lung problems like asthma and a fever over 100.4°F (38° C), get help1. Is your cough hanging around after 10 days or making your chest hurt? Can you see blood when you cough or find it hard to breathe? These are signs to call your doc right away1. For people with weak immune systems or getting chemo, any cold signs need quick medical advice1.

Symptoms Requiring Medical Attention
Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher with shaking chills, loss of appetite, or trouble breathing
Fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C) and a lung disease like emphysema or asthma
Cough lasting longer than 10 days
Chest pain when coughing
Trouble breathing or coughing up blood
Cold symptoms and a weakened immune system or undergoing chemotherapy
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If you have cancer and cold signs, it’s important to not wait. Infections can get serious fast for cancer patients. Working with your doctor helps you get the right care and avoid getting sicker.1

How Do Cancer Patients Get Treated for Colds?

Importance of Consulting Healthcare Providers

If you think you caught a bad cold or were near someone sick, tell your doctor, especially if you’re fighting cancer. “Cancer patients face bigger risks with flu, COVID-19, and RSV,” warns Torriani.1 “Don’t ignore signs like cough, fever, or sore throat. Talk to your doctor fast to lower your chance of getting very sick.”

Personalized Treatment Plans

Some antiviral medicines can help ease your cold’s symptoms and make you less likely to get really sick.1 For colds or stomach bugs, the care is about the same: rest, drink a lot, and relieve pains with drugs from the store.

Supporting the Immune System

People getting chemotherapy often find their appetite changing. They may feel full quickly or get nauseous. Food may not taste like it used to. But, it’s key to continue eating well. This will help keep your health up during chemo. Make sure to get plenty of nutrients and vitamins from your meals.5 Doing regular exercise can also strengthen your immune system. And, it’s shown that not sleeping well is common with chemo. To sleep better, try calming exercises like yoga. Also, avoid napping during the day, even if you’re tired.

Adequate Rest and Hydration

Getting 7 hours of sleep each night is important for your immune system. It helps lower your chances of getting sick.5 Doing exercise regularly is good for your health. It’s usually safe for cancer patients, but check with your doctor first.

Stress Management Techniques

Stress can weaken your immune system and harm your health. It’s crucial to manage stress well. Methods like deep breathing, meditation, and getting mental health help can be very useful.5

Precautions for Cancer Patients with Colds

Cancer patients getting chemotherapy must be extra careful to avoid colds and the flu.2 These infections can be very serious for them.2

Avoiding Crowds and Potential Exposure

It’s best for these patients to stay away from sick people and big crowds.2 Doctors might also suggest flu and COVID-19 shots for more safety.2

Monitoring for Worsening Symptoms

If you start feeling sick, like having a fever or cough, while on chemo, tell your doctor right away.2 For those with a weak immune system, a cold can become very dangerous.2

Coping with Colds During Cancer Treatment

During chemo, getting a cold is dangerous.2 Chemo makes your immune system weak, so you get sick easier.2 Neutropenia is when you have too few white blood cells and can’t fight off viruses well.2 If you get sick, it’s important to tell your doctor right away.2 To stay healthy, wash your hands a lot, eat well, try to exercise, and get enough sleep.2

Emotional Support and Self-Care

Feeling supported emotionally and taking care of yourself is key.2 Cold symptoms include a runny nose, cough, sore throat, and more.2 The flu might make you feel worse, with fever and chills.2 It’s different for everyone.2

If you’re in chemo, catching the flu or a cold can be very risky.2 Be careful with cold and flu meds. Some might not be safe.2 Sometimes, you might need antibiotics or other treatments if you get an infection.2 Focus on staying clean, eating healthy, resting, and light exercise.2

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Avoid sick people and large groups indoors while in chemo.2 It’s smart to get flu and COVID-19 shots. They can help keep you from getting sick.2 Getting vaccines is good protection for people with cancer in treatment.2

4 Colds are usually from viruses, so antibiotics won’t help.4 Sleep 7 to 9 hours each night if you’re fighting a cold. This helps your body’s defenses.4 Drink plenty of water to feel better. Aim for 8 glasses a day.4 Medicines like DayQuil can ease symptoms, but there’s no cure for the cold.4 Don’t take too much acetaminophen to avoid hurting your liver.4


Cancer makes light illnesses dangerous for people. Cold and flu season bring more risks.6 Those with cancer can catch more viruses. Their immune systems are weak from treatments.6 It’s key to talk a lot with your doctor. This helps you avoid getting sick. An illness could make your cancer treatment harder.7,6 Focus on avoiding sickness, quick medical help if needed, and keeping your body strong. This way, you can handle getting a cold well when you’re treating cancer.

An epidemiology study looked at infections in a hematology clinic. It found between 669-676 cases.7 Also, research noticed many cases in stem cell transplant patients. There were 2088-2094 cases of human rhinovirus and coronavirus.7 They found a number of inactive parainfluenza virus too. There were 1681-1688 cases.7

Survival rates for pediatric cancer are getting better.6 Still, it’s a main cause of death and sickness in kids.6 Infections like respiratory viruses are a big issue for cancer patients. This is more true after a transplant.6 Knowing the dangers and being prepared helps cancer patients a lot. They can handle colds better during their treatment.


How do cancer patients get treated for colds?

Cancer patients getting treated for a cold get help based on their symptoms. Doctors may suggest antiviral drugs, antibiotics, or things you can buy at the store. It’s key to get help quickly because infections can be very serious for people with cancer.

What are the risks of colds for cancer patients?

Cancer patients are at a bigger risk of catching illnesses like colds. This is because treatments like chemotherapy weaken their body’s defense. Getting sick might make them feel much worse. So, getting medical help fast is important.

How can cancer patients distinguish a cold from the flu or COVID-19?

Colds, the flu, and COVID-19 share some symptoms but also are different. Colds bring a runny or stuffy nose and mild fever. The flu has worse symptoms like a bad cough and high fever. COVID-19 can cause taste and smell loss. If in doubt, ask a doctor.

When should cancer patients seek medical attention for a cold?

It’s important for cancer patients to act fast if their symptoms get worse. For example, high fever, shivering, or breathing problems. Any infection is riskier for them, so, immediate medical care is vital.

What can cancer patients do to prevent colds during chemotherapy?

To prevent colds, cancer patients should wash their hands a lot, eat well, and rest. They can also try to stay active if okayed by their doctor. Flu and COVID-19 shots are good too. Stay away from sick people and crowded places.

How can cancer patients cope with a cold during treatment?

Dealing with a cold and cancer treatment is tough. But focusing on emotional well-being, doing self-care, and following doctor’s advice can help. Keeping hydrated, resting, and using things from the store for relief are good steps.

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