Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Chemotherapy drugs are powerful medications that can be potentially dangerous to household members and caregivers. Most people receive chemotherapy by an intravenous route in a clinic and are monitored by nurses administering the drugs. Some people receive chemotherapy at home through small pumps or in pill form by mouth. All routes of administration require patients and caregivers to be aware of chemotherapy safety precautions, which should be followed diligently to prevent injury or illness.
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Most chemotherapy safety precautions involve prevention of exposure to the medication as they leave the patient's body. The body eliminates most chemotherapy drugs within the first 48 hours following treatment. The drugs may be present in all body fluids, including urine, stool, vomit, blood, tears, semen and vaginal secretions. It is important for the patient, caregivers and other household members to avoid physical contact with body fluids for the first 48 hours after treatment to prevent accidental exposure to chemotherapy medications.
For the first 48 hours after a chemotherapy treatment, patients should double flush after using the toilet. Use of a separate toilet may be a good option during this period. Frequent toilet cleaning to wipe away splashes reduces the possibility of accidental exposure among family members and pets. Always wear gloves when cleaning the commode. Thorough hand washing with soap and water before leaving the bathroom is essential. If body fluids contact the skin, wash the area immediately. Use disposable gloves when cleaning up body fluid accidents and discard them immediately after use.
Any clothing or linen that has been soiled with body fluids should be laundered separately. Wash the items in hot water with regular detergent. Family members should not share eating utensils or drinks for a couple of days following a chemotherapy treatment.
Because chemotherapy reduces the body's ability to fight infections, patients should take precautions to prevent infection. Those undergoing treatment should avoid people who are sick and large crowds. Frequent and thorough hand washing reduces the likelihood of contracting an infectious illness. Precautions to avoid minor cuts and scrapes also reduces the possibility of accidental infection.
Avoiding sexual activity or using a condom for the first 48 hours after chemotherapy prevents potential medication exposure through semen and vaginal secretions. Preventing pregnancy during and for a few months following the completion of treatment is important because chemotherapy drugs may cause birth defects. Many doctors recommend use of two different forms of birth control during this time. Discuss this issue with your doctor if you have questions. If pregnancy occurs during treatment, notify your doctor right away.
Pregnant or breast feeding women should take extra caution when caring for a loved one undergoing chemotherapy treatment. A single chemotherapy exposure is unlikely to cause problems. However, repeated exposure can be dangerous. When patients take chemotherapy at home via small pumps or by mouth, additional safety instructions should be obtained from the doctor.