Browser does not support script.
Skip to main content
Find out how we produce our information|
When you have a donor stem cell transplant, there is a possibility that the new cells (the graft) will react against your own tissues (the host). This reaction is called graft-versus-host disease (GvHD).
GvHD happens when the donor immune system attacks your body tissues. Graft-versus-host disease doesn’t mean that the transplant has failed. It may even be of benefit, as some of the cells involved in the reaction may also attack any cancer cells that may have survived.
You’ll be prescribed drugs to help prevent GvHD and make it less severe if it occurs. These drugs are called immunosuppressive drugs and work by weakening or dampening down the immune system. Treatment given to prevent problems is called prophylaxis.
You’ll continue to have immunosuppressive drugs when you go home from hospital. There are a number of different drugs that can be used including:
Our cancer support specialists| can give you more information about these drugs and others that may also be used.
The effects of GvHD are usually mild, but in some people it can become severe and even life-threatening. It mainly affects the skin, mouth, stomach, bowel and liver. The first signs can happen up to six months after your transplant.
Occasionally the donor’s stem cells may be treated (purged) with antibodies to remove the type of white blood cell (T-lymphocyte) doctors think causes GvHD. Removing the T-lymphocytes is usually done if a severe graft-versus-host reaction is possible - for example, if stem cells from an unrelated donor are used.
This usually occurs in the first three months after your transplant, but it can happen later than this. It often causes an itchy red skin rash. If the bowel, stomach or liver are affected, you may develop nausea| (feeling sick) and vomiting (being sick), diarrhoea| and a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice).
Acute GvHD is more likely to affect you if:
It’s usually graded depending on how severe it is. Grade 1 is mild and may not need treatment, and in grade 2, the symptoms are moderate. Grade 3 is severe, and grade 4 is very severe. If you develop acute GvHD at grade 2 or above, you’ll usually have treatment involving medicines such as steroids |to suppress the immune reaction. You may need to be admitted to hospital for monitoring and support with the symptoms.
Chronic GvHD happens more than 100 days after the transplant. It can develop after acute GvHD, but it sometimes occurs even when a person hasn’t had acute GvHD. Chronic GvHD can affect different parts of the body, causing some of the symptoms listed below. It’s unlikely you’ll develop all of these. Possible symptoms include:
It’s usually treated with steroids and other medicines to control the immune system.
Content last reviewed: 1 December 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
If you have any questions about Macmillan we would love to hear from you| .
You can also follow us| on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or YouTube.
© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
what are these?|