Myeloma is a blood cancer that forms in the bone marrow in which a type of white blood cells called plasma cells becomes abnormal, impacting the cells’ ability to make antibodies to help fight infections. Additionally, myeloma treatments can further suppress the immune system, which can reduce the body's ability to fight off illnesses and increase severity of common infections, like a cold, the flu, or pneumonia.
Patients with multiple myeloma are about 15 times more likely to get an infection than those without the disease, so it’s important for patients to do what they can to help mitigate their risk for developing an infection. These 10 tips can help patients with plasma cell disorders stay on top of their health and avoid infections:
- Speak to your doctor about getting the COVID-19 vaccine and booster. Experts recommend that most cancer patients get the vaccine because people with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk for severe COVID-19 infection. Additionally, as vaccine effectiveness may decrease as time goes on, receiving a booster shot is also important to ensure the best protection against COVID-19. Speak to your doctor about when makes the most sense for you to get the vaccine and any other concerns you may have.
- Get a flu shot each year. It is best to get the flu shot as soon as it is available for the upcoming flu season. Each year, getting a flu vaccine allows the body to make antibodies that protect it against the strains of the influenza virus predicted to be the most prevalent and virulent. It can take up to two weeks after receiving the shot for the body to build up immunity, which is why it is recommended that people get the flu shot early on in the season. People who live with or care for cancer patients also should be vaccinated against seasonal flu based on Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations. Not only is it important so they can protect themselves from getting the flu, but it’s also necessary to prevent them from being a carrier to those who are more susceptible to infection, including people with cancer.
- If you do fall ill, know the symptoms you should look out for. What may amount to a common cold or small infection in an otherwise healthy person can quickly become serious, leading to pneumonia or even death, in patients with compromised immune systems. Some of the symptoms you should watch for include fever, headache, severe aches and pains, shortness of breath, dizziness, and persistent coughing. If these occur, it is likely it’s more than just a cold and you should see a doctor.
- Practice good hygiene. Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects in your home on an ongoing basis. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Also, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Be prepared. In the event you do get sick or feel especially fatigued, stock your pantry and medicine cabinet. Having items, such as food, tissues, and hand cleaners is important so that you won’t have to leave your house to get them when you’re not feeling well. Have emergency phone numbers on hand, including all of your doctors.
- Pay attention to your breathing. Approximately 80% of myeloma patients experience bone loss due to the myeloma weakening the bones, making them more prone to fracture. Frequently these bone lesions are located in the spine, ribs, and pelvis. This involvement of the skeletal system can impact posture and the ability of multiple myeloma patients to effectively remove secretions from lungs. If you’re coughing heavily or having difficulty breathing, be sure to call your healthcare team.
- Avoid crowds and others who are sick. Try to stay at least six feet away from people who appear ill. If possible, stay away from small children who spend their days in group settings like daycare or school – since germs spread easily in these places.
- Don’t lose contact with people just because you can’t physically be with them. While it is recommended that you keep your distance from small children while you’re immunocompromised, there are other ways you can stay involved. If you have grandchildren or nieces and nephews, make phone or video dates to hear about their day at school, or become their pen pal. This will help to continue your relationship while also minimizing the chances of picking up any of the germs they may be carrying.
- Discuss with your care team whether or not there are precautionary measures you can take to boost your immune system. Some patients may benefit from taking additional immune system boosting drugs or therapies, such as intravenous immunoglobulins (IVig). These infusions contain antibodies from a donor and are given through an IV to help multiple myeloma patients increase their immune system response.
- There are treatments that can help prevent or fight infections. The body produces antibodies to help fight infections. Monoclonal antibodies are man-made versions of these proteins that can be designed to attack myeloma cells. These treatments can be used to boost the immune system after an infection or as a preventative measure. New therapies and preventions are constantly being developed. Ask your doctor about these options.
Speak to your care team about any possible infections or concerns you may have regarding your health and staying protected against the flu, COVID-19, and other infections.