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When you have an illness or long-term health condition you’re at greater risk of infection. This can be because of the illness and changes to your diet or mobility. Some treatments can affect your immune system by reducing the number of white blood cells you have in your body. This weakens your immune system, making you less able to fight infections.

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What are infections?

Infections are caused when organisms (germs) get into your body and multiply. Some organisms are harmless and help our bodies to work properly. But others cause illness, disease or damage to organs and tissue.

Bacteria, viruses and other organisms cause infections. Bacteria can be found everywhere in the air, water, soil, or food. A lot of bacteria can be found on and in our body doing us no harm.

Viruses are tiny particles that can't live on their own. To reproduce, they need to infect a living cell, such as a cell in a human body.

For those who are at risk of infection, the bacteria and organisms that normally live on the skin or inside our digestive system can cause infections.

Some common infections include:

  • pneumonia
  • bronchitis
  • ear infections
  • common cold
  • flu
  • fungal infections such as thrush (candida)

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Signs and symptoms of infection

Tell your doctor if you experience any symptoms, so that if you have an infection they can start treatment quickly. Even minor infections can have a serious effect if your body is less able to fight infection.

Look out for these changes in your body, which could be symptoms of an infection:

  • feeling hot, shaky, shivery or unwell
  • change in cough or a new cough
  • sore throat or new mouth sore
  • shortness of breath
  • nasal congestion
  • burning or pain with urination
  • unusual vaginal discharge or irritation
  • needing to urinate more often
  • redness, soreness, or swelling in any area, including surgical wounds and ports
  • diarrhoea
  • vomiting
  • pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • new onset of pain

Talk with your doctor or nurse if you’re worried about your risk of getting infections.

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Avoiding infection

You can reduce your risk of infection by following these suggestions.

Washing your hands

One of the most effective ways of reducing the spread of infection is to wash your hands. Use soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand cleanser.

You and anyone around you, including members of your household, your doctors and nurses, should clean their hands frequently. Don't be afraid to ask people to clean their hands.

Always wash your hands:

  • before, during, and after cooking food
  • before you eat
  • after going to the bathroom
  • after changing diapers or helping a child use the bathroom
  • after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • after touching or cleaning up after your pet
  • after touching household waste
  • before and after treating a cut or wound or caring for your catheter, port, or other access device

General suggestions


  • wash daily
  • don’t share towels with anyone
  • change your nightdress or pyjamas regularly
  • use a clean tissue, not a handkerchief, when you have a runny nose or need to sneeze, dispose of it straight away and wash your hands
  • cover your mouth with a tissue when coughing
  • use a mouthwash
  • change the water in any vases of flowers frequently because bacteria can grow in stagnant water


  • people who are unwell, for example if they have a sore throat or cold, a tummy bug or an infection
  • crowded places, using public transport, or public swimming pools
  • touching any wounds or devices in your limbs or body, for example a drip or catheter – if you need to touch them, make sure you wash your hands afterwards
  • sharing equipment with other people who are unwell unless it’s cleaned before and after use

Eating healthily and drinking plenty of fluids

Keep physically strong and eating well can help you avoid infections.

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Make sure food is stored at the correct temperature and cooked thoroughly.
  • Don’t reheat food that has cooled.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.

Fluids help keep your mouth moist and healthy. They also flush out your kidneys and bladder, preventing the build-up of debris where bacteria can grow. It's thought that drinks like cranberry juice may help reduce the risk of developing urinary infections.

A ‘clean’ diet

You may be recommended to follow a 'clean' diet. This means avoiding salads that may not have been properly washed and avoiding foods that could contain harmful bacteria, like:

  • raw or lightly cooked eggs
  • shellfish
  • all types of pâté
  • soft cheeses
  • takeaway food
  • pre-wrapped sandwiches
  • cooked sliced meats
  • smoked fish

Advice on a clean diet will vary depending on your illness or condition and any treatment you’re getting. Check with your doctor or nurse.

Food preparation

Your food needs to be carefully prepared so that infection can't pass from one food to another:

  • Raw and cooked foods need to be kept apart.
  • If you’re following a clean diet, clean foods need to be kept away from non-clean foods.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly and peel before use.

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External websites

This page is for general information only. It's not intended to replace any advice from health or social care professionals. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. Read more about how our information is created and how it's used.

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