Symptoms of Second-Hand Chemotherapy Exposure

In this article, we will take a close look at second-hand chemotherapy exposure, a potential health risk for caregivers, family members, and healthcare workers. We will discuss how this indirect contact with chemotherapy drugs occurs, the symptoms it can cause, and the necessary precautions to prevent exposure.
Jakub Hantabal

Jakub Hantabal

Postgraduate student of Precision Cancer Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a data scientist.

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What is second-hand chemotherapy exposure?

Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that kills all rapidly dividing cells in the patient's body. Consequently, chemotherapy drugs are highly toxic, and therefore must be handled with utmost care. The body sees the drug as harmful, and therefore attemps to detoxify and excrete the drug; this is done through bodily fluids such as urine or sweat. Second-hand chemotherapy exposure refers to accidental contact with the bodily fluids of patients who have undergone chemotherapy, which contain the drug.

For example, in patients who received CHOP chemotherapy, a drug regimen containing four drugs used to treat lymphomas, cyclophosphamide (one of the four drugs) was detected in the sweat of all patients included in the study at concentrations between 7.38 and 160.77 ng/cm^2 [1]. Therefore, the clothes contaminated with the patients' sweat are a potential source of second-hand chemotherapy exposure.

What are the symptoms?

Exposure to chemotherapy drugs, even if accidental and at small doses, can lead to symptoms due to the toxicity of the drugs.

The most common symptom is contact dermatitis - a reaction where the skin becomes irritated, red, itchy and swollen [2]. Absorption of the drug may cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and potentially vomiting, and headaches. In some cases, repeated second-hand chemotherapy exposure can lead to more serious problems such as organ damage, impaired fertility, and even mutagenic (disrupts DNA) effects on cells, potentially resulting in malignant transformation (development of cancer). However, more research needs to be conducted to fully understand these adverse effects [2].

Jakub Hantabal

Jakub Hantabal

Jakub is a postgraduate student of Precision Cancer Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a data scientist. His research focuses on the impact of hypoxia on genetic and proteomic changes in cancer. Jakub also consults and collaborates with multiple institutions in the United Kingdom and Slovakia supporting research groups with advanced data analysis, and he also co-founded an NGO organising educational events in data science.