Vincristine is a chemotherapy drug usually given to treat leukaemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and some children's cancers. This information should ideally be read with our general information about chemotherapy and your type of cancer.
What vincristine looks like
Back to top
Vincristine is a colourless fluid. You'll see your hospital doctor regularly while you have this treatment so they can monitor its effects.
Vincristine should only be given to adults and adolescents by drip (infusion) in one of the following ways:
through a fine tube (cannula) placed into the vein, usually in the back of the hand
through a fine, plastic tube inserted under the skin and into a vein near your collarbone (central line)
into a fine tube inserted into a vein in the crook of your arm (PICC line).
The infusion takes about 5-10 minutes.
Children can be given vincristine by slow injection into a vein (intravenously) through a cannula or line.
Chemotherapy is usually given as a course of several sessions (cycles) of treatment over a few months. The length of your treatment and the number of cycles you have will depend on the type of cancer or leukaemia you're being treated for. Your nurse or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.
Before you begin your treatment your doctor will arrange for you to have blood tests. You'll usually be given anti-sickness drugs before and/or during your treatment.
Each person’s reaction to chemotherapy is different. Some people have very few side effects while others may experience more. The side effects described below won't affect everyone who has vincristine and may be different if you're having more than one type of chemotherapy drug.
We have outlined the most common side effects but haven't included those that are rare and unlikely to affect you. If you notice any effects that aren't listed below, discuss them with your doctor, chemotherapy nurse or pharmacist.
Abdominal cramps and constipation
Vincristine can cause pain in your tummy (abdomen) and constipation. Let your doctor know if you develop pain. It can usually be controlled with mild painkillers.
Constipation can usually be helped by drinking plenty of fluids, eating more fibre and doing some exercise. You may need to take medicines (laxitives) to help. Your doctor can prescribe these or you can buy them at a pharmacy.
Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
This is due to the effect vincristine has on nerves and is known as peripheral neuropathy. Tell your doctor if you notice these symptoms or have difficulty carrying out fiddly tasks, such as doing up buttons. This problem usually improves slowly a few months after the treatment has finished. Sometimes, these symptoms can persist; tell your doctor if this happens.
Very rarely, other nerves may be affected, such as the neck nerves, which may cause pain in the jaw or double vision.
Less common side effects
Back to top
Your hair may fall out completely or just thin. This usually starts 3-4 weeks after starting treatment, although it may occur earlier. You may also have thinning and loss of eyelashes, eyebrows and hair in other areas of the body. Hair loss is temporary and your hair will grow back once the treatment has finished. Your hair may grow back straighter, curlier, finer, or a slightly different colour than it was before. Your nurse can give you advice about coping with hair loss.
You may notice that food tastes different. Normal taste usually comes back after treatment finishes. A dietitian or specialist nurse at your hospital can give you advice about ways of coping with this side effect.
Feeling tired is a common side effect of chemotherapy especially towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after it’s over. It’s important to try to pace yourself and get as much rest as you need. Try to balance this with some gentle exercise, such as short walks, which will help. If tiredness is making you feel sleepy, don’t drive or operate machinery.
Risk of infection
Rarely, vincristine can reduce the number of white blood cells, which help fight infection. White blood cells are produced by the bone marrow. If the number of your white blood cells is low you will be more prone to infections. A low white blood cell count is called neutropenia.
Neutropenia begins seven days after treatment, and your resistance to infection is usually at its lowest 10-14 days after chemotherapy. The number of your white blood cells will then increase steadily and usually return to normal before your next cycle of chemotherapy is due.
Contact your doctor or the hospital straight away if:
your temperature goes above 38ºC (100.4ºF)
you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature.
You will have a blood test before having more chemotherapy to check the number of white blood cells. Occasionally, your treatment may need to be delayed if the number of your blood cells (blood count) is still low.
Bruising or bleeding
Rarely, vincristine can reduce the production of platelets, which help the blood to clot. Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding, such as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin. You may need to have a platelet transfusion if your platelet count is low.
Vincristine can reduce the number of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. A low red blood cell count is called anaemia. You may become anaemic while having treatment with vincristine. This may make you feel tired and breathless. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms. You may need to have a blood transfusion if the number of red blood cells becomes too low.
This may happen following your treatment. Tell your nurse or doctor if you experience jaw pain.
It’s important to let your doctor know straight away if you feel unwell or have any severe side effects, even if they’re not mentioned above.
Back to top
Leakage into the tissue around the vein (extravasation)
If this happens when vincristine is being given, the tissue in that area can become damaged. Tell the doctor or nurse immediately if you notice any stinging or burning around the vein while the drug is being given. This is unlikely to happen if the chemotherapy is given through a central or PICC line.
If the area around the injection site becomes red or swollen at any time, you should tell the doctor or nurse on the ward. If you're at home, ring the clinic or ward and ask to speak to the doctor or nurse.
Risk of developing a blood clot
Cancer can increase the risk of developing a blood clot (thrombosis), and chemotherapy may increase this risk further.
A blood clot may cause symptoms such as pain, redness and swelling in a leg, or breathlessness and chest pain. Blood clots can be very serious, so it’s important to tell your doctor straight away if you notice any of these symptoms. Most clots can be treated with drugs that thin the blood. The doctor or nurse can give you more information.
Your ability to become pregnant or father a child may be affected by having this treatment. It's important to discuss your fertility with your doctor before starting treatment.
It's not advisable to become pregnant or father a child while taking vincristine as it may harm the developing baby. It's important to use effective contraception while taking this drug and for at least a few months afterwards. You can discuss this with your doctor.
It’s not known whether chemotherapy drugs can be present in semen or vaginal fluids. To protect your partner, it’s safest to either avoid sex or use a barrier form of contraception for about 48 hours after chemotherapy.
There's a potential risk that chemotherapy drugs may be present in breast milk. Women are advised not to breastfeed during chemotherapy and for a few months afterwards.
Some medicines, including those that you can buy in a shop or chemist, can be harmful to take when you are having chemotherapy. Tell your doctor about any medicines you're taking, including over-the-counter drugs, complementary therapies and herbal drugs.
If you’re admitted to hospital for a reason not related to the cancer, it’s important to tell the doctors and nurses looking after you that you're having chemotherapy treatment. You should tell them the name of your cancer specialist so that they can ask for advice.
It’s a good idea to know who you should contact if you have any problems or troublesome side effects when you’re at home. Your chemotherapy nurse or doctor will give you details of who to contact for advice. This should include ‘out-of hours’ contact details if you need to call someone at evenings, overnight or at the weekend.
This section is based on our vincristine fact sheet, which has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including:
Sweetman, et al. Martindale: The Complete Drug Reference. 37th edition. 2011. Pharmaceutical Press.
British National Formulary. 62nd edition. 2011. British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.
electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC). www.medicines.org.uk (accessed September 2011).
Perry MC. The Chemotherapy Source Book. 4th edition. 2007. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Using Vinca Alkaloid Minibags (Adult/Adolescent Units). August 2008. National Patient Safety Agency Rapid Response Report.