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Viruses & blood cancer – what you need to know

Illustration of someone washing hands, coughing, and talking to a health professional

Blood cancer and its treatment can affect the bone marrow’s ability to produce adequate numbers of healthy blood cells. Your blood count (the number of white cells, platelets and red cells circulating in the blood) will generally fall within a week of having your treatment.

The point at which the white blood cell count is at its lowest is called the nadir.  Your treating team may also tell you that you are neutropenic (which means you are low in an infection-fighting white cell known as a neutrophil). This is usually expected 10 to 14 days after having chemotherapy.

During this time, you will be at a higher risk of developing an infection.

While your white blood cell count is low you should take sensible precautions to help prevent your exposure to infection.

Viruses such as influenza and the common cold typically have peak periods of infection each year but they can be contracted at any time. In 2020, a new strain of a coronavirus was recorded called COVID-19.

How do viruses like influenza, common colds and, most recently, the coronavirus COVID-19 spread?

These viruses are transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets that occur through coughing or sneezing of an infected person in close proximity. It can also be contracted through touching contaminated surfaces.

How can I help prevent infection and illness?

While your white blood cell count is low you should take sensible precautions to help prevent infection.

Here are a few simple ideas for avoiding illness and infection, particularly when you have a compromised immune system.


  • Avoid places where there are likely to be a lot of people such as shopping centres, public gatherings, cinemas, sporting events etc.
  • Avoid contact with those who are already infected and/or contagious, for example people with colds, flu and chicken pox. These could be your friends and work colleagues but also your family members.
  • If family or friends have recently travelled overseas ensure they’re free of any infection symptoms, or have completed any periods of self isolation, before visiting them.
  • Avoid the use of public transport. Our transport service may be able to help.


  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the bin after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze; use the toilet; or before you prepare or eat food. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.


  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Be physically active, if safe to do so.
  • Manage your stress.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food.

Food and drink

  • Only eat foods that have been properly prepared, washed and cooked thoroughly.
  • Avoid raw or under-cooked foods.
  • Only eat and drink pasteurised juice or dairy products.
  • Avoid sharing your food or utensils while eating.

Medical advice and vaccinations

  • If you develop flu symptoms call your doctor immediately, especially if your symptoms include a fever.
  • As always, your best source of information is your doctor or treatment centre who knows your medical history best. While you’re there, what else could you ask?


Vaccinations, including for the flu, can reduce your chance of getting certain infections. But if you’ve had treatment recently, you may not be able to have some vaccinations.

Speak to your treating specialist about which vaccinations you can have and when.

If you’re planning a holiday abroad, check with your cancer doctor or specialist nurse first about what vaccinations you may need.

When should I contact my doctor?

It’s important you contact your doctor or the nursing team for advice immediately (at any time of the day or night) if you are feeling very unwell, or if you experience any of the following:

  • A temperature of 38°C or higher* (even if it returns to normal) and/or an episode of uncontrolled shivering (also called a rigor)
  • Bleeding or bruising, for example blood in the urine and/or bowel motions; coughing up blood, bleeding gums or a persistent nosebleed
  • Nausea or vomiting that is prolonged and prevents you from eating or drinking, or taking your normal medications
  • Diarrhoea, stomach cramps or severe constipation
  • Persistent coughing or shortness of breath
  • The presence of a new rash, reddening and/or itching of the skin
  • A persistent headache
  • A new severe pain or persistent unexplained soreness
    persistent pain, swelling, redness or pus anywhere on your body.

* A normal body temperature is between 36 and 37°C

How can I prevent the spread of infection?

Those who are living with or are having treatment for a blood cancer are more susceptible to infection.

If you’re not feeling well, you should avoid and limit contact with those with a blood cancer diagnosis.  If this is unavoidable you should take sensible precautions to help prevent the spread of infection.

Hand washing

One of the most effective infection-control methods is frequently washing hands (up to the elbow, where possible) with soap and water.  When this is unavailable use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

Thoroughly washing your hands is key – washing between fingers and on the back of hands for 15-20 seconds is the aim.

Rinse with water and then dry your hands in the same manner with paper towel or hot air (avoid using fabric towels).

Wash your hands not only after you sneeze or cough but also after using the toilet and before you eat or prepare food.

Cover your cough

Good infection control means coughing and sneezing into the crook of your elbow – not your hands – or into a tissue. If using a tissue, it’s important these are disposed of in bins with closed lids and your hands are washed.  It is also good practice to avoid close contact with people (like hugging and touching) while you’re unwell.

Should I wear a mask and what type of mask? 

Most people will not benefit from wearing a surgical mask. Surgical masks in the community are only helpful in preventing people who have coronavirus from spreading it to others. If you are well, you do not need to wear a surgical mask as there is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people to prevent transmission in public.

For people with compromised or suppressed immune systems, avoiding contact with the general public as much as possible is key to avoid contracting viruses. If this is unavoidable, a mask is a practical measure. Speak with your treating team or your GP to understand if this option is appropriate for you and what type of mask you should wear.

For those who do need masks, the Federal Government advises only the use of specific medical grade, surgical masks. Non-surgical or home-made masks are not recommended for use by individuals or their families living with blood cancer.

Be aware

There are many simple and easy practices that can reduce the likelihood of infection spread. Be aware of your body and any changes and refer to the list on when to contact your doctor. If you’re concerned you are becoming unwell, contact your doctor for advice.

Coronavirus COVID-19 information

The Australasian Leukaemia & Lymphoma Group (ALLG) has developed an Information Sheet about the coronavirus in collaboration with the Leukaemia Foundation and eight other key Australian cancer organisations.

The ALLG Information Sheet also contains a list of helpful sites and resources. Download it hereOpen this document with ReadSpeaker docReader.

The Government has released important resources around coronavirus specifically – connect with these resources to stay aware of any developments that come to light:










Looking for updates on Leukaemia Foundation services? Visit our COVID-19 Hub here >


Last updated on May 7th, 2020

Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.