Infection and GVHD

Drugs used to treat people with chronic graft-versus-host disease suppress the immune system and increase the risk of infection.

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Many drugs used to treat GVHD weaken your immune system. This increases your risk of developing an infection.

Your transplant doctor may put you on antibiotics to prevent a serious bacterial infection, or give you antibiotics to keep on hand in case you develop a fever. You may also receive medications to prevent viral and fungal infections.

Wash Your Hands

Your transplant team will give you guidelines to help prevent infection while your immune system is weak.

The most important guideline is to frequently and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water before

  • eating or preparing food
  • taking medications

Be sure you wash your hands after

  • touching catheters or wounds
  • changing diapers (if you are permitted to do so)
  • touching plants or dirt (If you are permitted to do so)
  • going to the restroom
  • touching animals
  • touching bodily fluids or items that might have come in contact with bodily fluids such as clothing, bedding or toilets
  • going outdoors or to a public place
  • removing gloves
  • collecting or depositing garbage (if you are permitted to do so)

Avoid Exposure to Sources of Infection

Until you are off immunosuppressive drugs, you'll want to avoid exposure to sources of infection. You transplant team may recommend that you avoid:

  • crowds
  • people who have, or have been exposed to, infections
  • people who have recently been vaccinated for chicken pox, polio, shingles or the flu
  • changing a baby's diaper
  • gardening or digging in dirt
  • smoking or being around people who smoke cigarettes, cigars, a pipe or marijuana
  • walking, wading, swimming or playing in ponds or lakes
  • construction sites and remodeling projects

Cleaning kitchen counters and bathrooms daily with a solution of one part bleach to ten parts water can help eliminate sources of infection.

Ask your Transplant Team about Pets

Rules vary among transplant centers about whether or not you can have pets at home while your immune system is suppressed. 

Your transplant team may ask you to avoid:

  • cleaning litter boxes or cages, disposing of animal waste, or other activities that put you in touch with animal feces
  • adopting ill or juvenile pets
  • bird droppings
  • cleaning fish tanks
  • an animal that is sick
  • reptiles such as lizards, snakes, turtles and iguanas, and items they touch
  • chicks and ducklings
  • exotic pets such as monkeys and chinchillas

Your doctor may also recommend

  • keeping cat litter away from areas where food is served
  • keeping cats indoors
  • not adopting stray cats
  • covering backyard sandboxes to prevent cats from using it as a litter box.

Be sure your vaccinations are up-to-date and carefully follow your doctor's instructions to avoid sources of infection until you are no longer on drugs that suppress your immune system. At the first sign of an infection, call your doctor so that you can get prompt treatment and avoid serious complications.

Even infections that you would normally ignore can pose a serious threat to you while your immune system is weak. Infections that are caught early are often easier to treat.

Next Page: Side Effects of GVHD Treatment