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Chemotherapy drugs are considered to be hazardous to people who handle them or come into contact with them. For patients, this means the drugs are strong enough to damage or kill cancer cells. But this also means the drugs can be a concern for others who might be exposed to them. This is why there are safety rules and recommendations for people who handle chemo drugs.
It's important to know that not all medicines and drugs to treat cancer work the same way or have the same safety precautions. The information below describes some safety concerns of traditional or standard chemotherapy. There are also other drugs that are used to treat cancer in different ways, including targeted therapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy.
You may notice special clothing and protective equipment being worn by the nurses and other members of your cancer care team. Pharmacists and nurses who prepare chemo drugs use a special type of pharmacy that must meet certain regulations. And nurses and others who give your chemo and help take care of you afterwards wear protective clothing, such as 2 pairs of special gloves and a gown, and sometimes goggles or a face shield. If you're getting IV chemo, there might be a disposable pad under the infusion tubing to protect the surface of the bed or chair.
Oral chemo, or chemo you take by mouth and swallow, is usually taken at home. These drugs are as strong as other forms of chemo, and many are considered hazardous. There are usually special precautions for storing and handling oral chemo drugs. You might be told to be careful not to let others come into contact with it or your body fluids while taking it and for a time after taking it. Sometimes you need to wear gloves when touching the pills or capsules. Some drugs have to be kept in the bottle or box they came in. And some drugs and the packages they come in need to be disposed of in a certain way. Some might have to be taken back to the drug store to be thrown away safely. If you are taking an oral chemo drug, talk to your cancer care team about any special precautions needed at home. To learn more, see Getting Oral or Topical Chemotherapy.
There are certain safety precautions that might be needed during and after getting chemo. Unless your health care team tells you differently, you can usually be around family and friends during the weeks and months you're getting chemo. On treatment days, family and friends can often come with you. However, some treatment centers only allow patients in the infusion area and visitors may need to stay in the waiting room.
You are the only person who should be exposed to the chemo you are getting, but it can be irritating if it gets on your skin. Any spilled IV chemo, any powder or dust from a pill or capsule, or any liquid from oral or other kinds of chemo can be hazardous to others if they are around it.
There are many things you can do during and after chemo to keep yourself and your loved ones from being affected by the chemo drugs while your body is getting rid of them. Again, talk to your cancer care team about if these or any other precautions should be followed.
It generally takes about 48 to 72 hours for your body to break down and/or get rid of most chemo drugs. But it's important to know that each chemo drug is excreted or passed through the body a bit differently. Talk to your doctor or nurse about how the chemo you are getting is passed and what body fluids may be affected by chemo. Some drugs take longer to leave your body.
Most of the drug waste comes out in your body fluids, such as urine, stool, tears, sweat, and vomit. The drug waste is also in your blood, and may be in other body fluids such as fluids from semen and the vagina. When chemo drugs or their waste are outside your body, they can harm or irritate skin. Other people and pets could be exposed to the drug waste for a few days if they come into contact with any of your body fluids.
Here are things you can do to help keep your family, visitors, and pets safe during this time:
Most chemo drugs make you less able to fight infection, but there are ways you can do your best to avoid getting an infection. To learn more, see Infections.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hazardous Drug Exposures in Healthcare. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/hazdrug/default.html on November 5, 2019.
Chu E, DeVita VT. Physician's Cancer Chemotherapy Drug Manual, 2019. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2019.
Olsen MM, Naseman RW. Chemotherapy. In Olsen MM, LeFebvre KB, Brassil KJ, eds. Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy Guidelines and Recommendations for Practice. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2019:61-90.
Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Toolkit for Safe Handling of Hazardous Drugs for Nurses in Oncology. Accessed at https://www.ons.org/sites/default/files/2018-06/ONS_Safe_Handling_Toolkit_0.pdf on November 5, 2019.
Yuki M, Sekine S, Takase K, Ishida T, Sessink PJ. Exposure of family members to antineoplastic drugs via excreta of treated cancer patients. J Oncol Pharm Pract. 2013;19(3):208-217.
Last Revised: November 22, 2019