People with cancer may be more prone to getting COVID-19 and other diseases. Chemotherapy weakens the immune system, so the body does not offer protection against bacteria and viruses.

COVID-19 is a disease that a person may develop when contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) affirms that COVID-19 symptoms may be mild and may include fever, tiredness, loss of taste, or diarrhea.

However, people who develop chest pain, shortness of breath, or confusion may need immediate medical care.

This article discusses how chemotherapy affects COVID-19. It also explains that people receiving chemotherapy may be at a higher risk of developing the virus. Finally, it states what to do if a person receives a positive COVID-19 test during treatment and how to help prevent the disease.

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Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that kills or shrinks cancer cells, but it can also affect healthy cells. It can cause short-term or long-term side effects, which may include:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) affirm that people undergoing chemotherapy may have an increased risk of developing infections.

Chemotherapy medications weaken the immune system, so the body has a more difficult time fighting infections.

Sometimes, infections may lead to sepsis. This is a life threatening response that the body produces when a person has an infection. It can cause:

  • increased heart rate
  • shortness of breath
  • shivering
  • sweating

Sepsis is more likely to occur in those with cancer, lung disease, and a weakened immune system.

The Sepsis Alliance states that COVID-19 can progress to pneumonia and then to viral sepsis.

Learn more about chemotherapy.

People who have cancer may have an increased risk of developing serious symptoms from COVID-19, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

This may also depend on the medications a person is taking, their age, and cancer severity, among other factors. The ACS states that older adults may be more prone to developing infections.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes that people with blood cancer may take a long time to recover from COVID-19. Having the two conditions can be life threatening.

Additionally, COVID-19 vaccinations may not be as effective if someone has blood cancer, as their immune system function reduces.

Research from 2020 indicates that sometimes chemotherapy medications may cause lung problems as a side effect. These may make people more prone to experiencing serious COVID-19 symptoms.

The CDC lists some of the symptoms of COVID-19 that require immediate medical care:

  • breathing problems
  • confusion
  • chest pressure
  • skin discoloration

According to a 2022 study, cancer and COVID-19 may also affect children. The authors state that children may experience a delay in treatment and diagnostic tests, and doctors may have to change their treatment plan if these individuals develop COVID-19.

Learn more about COVID-19 symptoms.

The NCI recommends that people undergo testing for COVID-19 if they have symptoms of an infection, such as:

  • fever
  • chills
  • muscle cramps
  • a loss of smell or taste
  • congestion

If they have a positive result, they may need to stay indoors to avoid spreading the infection. They may also call their doctor to inform them about the test and ask about their cancer treatment.

Cancer medications may interact with COVID-19 treatment. The individual may have to stop cancer treatment temporarily while receiving treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.

Research mentions different medications for people who have cancer and have developed COVID-19:

  • Remdesivir: This is an antiviral medication that a person receives intravenously. It is suitable for people who are receiving treatment in the hospital.
  • Steroids: These are medications that doctors recommend for individuals receiving hospital care but require oxygen supplementation.
  • Molnupiravir and Paxlovid: These are antiviral drugs that are available in pill form for people who do not require hospital care.

Learn more about COVID-19 tests.

The WHO lists self-care tips that may help individuals limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and reduce their risk of developing COVID-19. These include:

  • getting vaccinated
  • wearing a fitted mask indoors
  • opening windows when staying indoors
  • washing hands with soap and water and using alcohol-based hand rubs
  • staying home when feeling unwell
  • keeping a minimum 1-meter distance from others if they do not feel well

The following are some questions people frequently ask about chemotherapy and COVID-19.

Does chemotherapy stop if you have COVID-19?

When a person has cancer or COVID-19, doctors may have to stop treatment and prescribe new medications that target COVID-19 symptoms. The type of medications depends on if people are receiving cancer treatment in the hospital or at home.

Does COVID-19 kill people with cancer?

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that destroys cancer cells. It causes a decrease in the number of white blood cells, causing the immune system to weaken.

White blood cells form part of the immune system that fights foreign cells, such as bacteria and viruses.

The researchers behind a 2021 review note that a weakened immune system may make people more prone to getting infections, including the virus that causes COVID-19. These may cause serious symptoms, and treatment may take a longer time to work.

Sometimes, people may face a life threatening situation and need immediate medical treatment.

Chemotherapy may make individuals more prone to developing infections. It reduces the number of white blood cells, which can weaken immune system function.

People who have cancer and receive a positive COVID-19 test may contact their doctor to discuss the next steps for their treatment.

Individuals may consider wearing a mask when they are indoors, covering their mouth when coughing, and getting vaccinated to reduce the chance of spreading the infection.