Cytarabine is used to treat acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). It may also be used to treat other types of leukaemia and lymphomas.
Cytarabine is used to treat acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). It may sometimes be used to treat other types of leukaemia and lymphomas. It is best to read this information with our general information about chemotherapy and the type of leukaemia or lymphoma you have.
Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.
You have cytarabine during a stay in hospital or in the chemotherapy day unit. A chemotherapy nurse gives it to you. Cytarabine can be given in combination with other cancer drugs.
During treatment you usually see a cancer doctor, a chemotherapy nurse or a specialist nurse, and a specialist pharmacist. This is who we mean when we mention doctor, nurse or pharmacist in this information.
Before or on the day of treatment, a nurse or person trained to take blood (phlebotomist) takes blood samples from you. This is to check that your all your blood results are at a safe level to have chemotherapy.
You see a doctor or nurse before you have chemotherapy. They ask you how you have been feeling. If your blood results are okay, the pharmacist prepares your chemotherapy. Your nurse tells you when your treatment is likely to be ready.
Your nurse usually gives you anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs and sometimes steroids before the cytarabine.
There are different ways cytarabine can be given. You doctor will tell you more about this. You can have it as an injection:
- into your vein (intravenously)
- just under the skin (subcutaneous injection)
- into the spinal fluid (intrathecal injection).
If you have cytarabine given into the vein it is given:
- through a short thin tube that the nurse puts into a vein in your arm or hand (cannula)
- through a fine tube that goes under the skin of your chest and into a vein close by (central line)
- through a fine tube that is put into a vein in your arm and goes up into a vein in your chest (PICC line).
If you are having cytarabine as an injection under the skin, a trained nurse may give it to you as an outpatient or at home. If you are having low dose cytarabine, the nurse may be able to teach you how to inject yourself.
Cytarabine can also be given into the spinal fluid to allow the drug to reach the brain. This is called intrathecal chemotherapy. Your doctor will tell you about side effects when it is given this way.
Your course of chemotherapy
We explain the most common side effects of this treatment here. We also include some less common side effects.
You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you are unlikely to get all of them. If you are also having treatment with other cancer drugs, you may have some side effects that we have not listed here. Always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any side effects you have.
Your doctor can give you drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as your nurse or pharmacist explains. This means they will be more likely to work for you. Your nurse will give you advice about managing your side effects. After your treatment is over, most side effects start to improve.
Serious and life-threatening side effects
Some cancer treatments can cause severe side effects. Rarely, these may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor or nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.
Contact the hospital
Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. If you feel unwell or need advice, you can call them at any time of the day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.
We cannot list every side effect for this treatment. There are some rare side effects that are not listed. You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information.
Some people have an allergic reaction while having this treatment. Signs of a reaction can include:
- feeling hot or flushed
- a skin rash
- feeling dizzy
- a headache
- feeling breathless or wheezy
- swelling of your face or mouth
- pain in your back, tummy or chest.
Your nurse will check you for signs of a reaction during your treatment. If you feel unwell or have any of these signs, tell them straight away. If you do have a reaction, it can be treated quickly.
Sometimes a reaction happens a few hours after treatment. If you develop any signs or feel unwell after you get home, contact the hospital straight away.
Discomfort near to the injection site
If cytarabine is given as an injection under the skin (subcutaneous injection), it can cause redness, swelling and discomfort where it is injected (injection site). Tell the doctor or nurse if you have this.
You will have the injection into a different area of your skin each time to prevent this.
Pain along the vein
Cytarabine may cause some symptoms 6 to 12 hours after it has been given. This is called cytarabine syndrome. Signs can include:
- a high temperature or chills
- a rash
- pain in the eyes, bones, tummy or chest.
You may be given medicines before treatment to help prevent or reduce these symptoms.
If you have any of these symptoms, tell your nurse or contact the hospital straight away.
Risk of infection
This treatment can reduce the number of white blood cells in your blood. These cells fight infection. If the number of white blood cells is low, you are more likely to get an infection. A low white blood cell count is sometimes called neutropenia.
An infection can be very serious when the number of white blood cells is low. It is important to get any infection treated as soon as possible. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given if:
- your temperature goes over 37.5°C (99.5°F)
- you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
- you have symptoms of an infection
- your temperature goes below 36°C (96.8°F).
Symptoms of an infection include:
- feeling shivery and shaking
- a sore throat
- a cough
- needing to pass urine (pee) a lot, or discomfort when you pass urine.
It is important to follow any specific advice your cancer treatment team gives you.
The number of white blood cells will usually return to normal before your next treatment. You will have a blood test before having more treatment. If your white blood cell count is low, your doctor may delay your treatment for a short time, until your cell count increases.
Bruising and bleeding
This treatment can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot.
If the number of platelets is low, you may bruise or bleed easily. You may have:
- bleeding gums
- heavy periods
- blood in your urine (pee) or stools (poo)
- tiny red or purple spots on the skin that may look like a rash.
Tell your doctor if you have any unexplained bruising or bleeding. You may need a drip to give you extra platelets. This is called a platelet transfusion.
Anaemia (low number of red blood cells)
This treatment can reduce the number of red blood cells in your blood. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. If the number of red blood cells is low, this is called anaemia. You may have symptoms such as:
- pale skin
- lack of energy
- feeling breathless
- feeling dizzy and light-headed.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.
If you are very anaemic, you may need a drip to give you extra red blood cells. This is called a blood transfusion.
Your doctor will give you anti-sickness drugs to help prevent or control sickness during your treatment. Take the drugs exactly as your nurse or pharmacist tells you. It is easier to prevent sickness than to treat it after it has started.If you feel sick, take small sips of fluids often and eat small amounts regularly. It is important to drink enough fluids. If you continue to feel sick, or are sick (vomit) more than once in 24 hours, contact the hospital as soon as possible. They will give you advice. Your doctor or nurse may change the anti-sickness drug to one that works better for you.
Loss of appetite
This treatment can affect your appetite. Don't worry if you do not eat much for a day or 2. But if your appetite does not come back after a few days, or if you are losing weight, tell your nurse or dietitian. They can give you advice. They may give you food or drink supplements. Or they may suggest changes to your diet or eating habits to help.
This treatment may cause diarrhoea. Diarrhoea means passing more stools (poo) than is usual for you, or having watery or loose stools. If you have a stoma, it will be more active than usual.
If you have diarrhoea:
- try to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day
- avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk products, high-fat foods and high-fibre foods
- contact the hospital for advice.
Problems passing urine (peeing)
Some people find it difficult to pass urine (pee) after having cytarabine. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if this is a problem for you.
Effects on the kidneys
This treatment can affect how your kidneys work. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment finishes. You will have blood tests to check how well your kidneys are working. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have blood in your urine (pee) or you are passing urine less than usual.
It is important to drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of non-alcoholic fluid each day to help protect your kidneys.
Effects on the liver
This treatment can change the way your liver works. This usually goes back to normal after treatment finishes. Rarely, the drug may cause your skin and the whites of your eyes to turn yellow. This is called jaundice. You will have regular blood tests to check how well your liver is working.
Effects on the eyes
Cytarabine may make your eyes feel sore, red, dry or itchy (conjunctivitis). Your doctor may prescribe steroid eye drops to help prevent this. It is important to use these as you are told to.
Do not wear contact lenses if you are using eye drops or if your eyes are sore. Your doctor can tell you when you can wear them again.
Cytarabine may also:
- make your eyes more sensitive to light
- cause blurry vision
- cause eye pain.
If you have pain or notice any change in your vision, always tell your doctor or nurse.
Sore mouth and throat
This treatment may cause a sore mouth and throat. You may also get mouth ulcers. This can make you more likely to get a mouth or throat infection. Use a soft toothbrush to clean your teeth or dentures in the morning, at night and after meals.
If your mouth or throat is sore:
- tell your nurse or doctor – they can give you a mouthwash or medicines to help
- try to drink plenty of fluids
- avoid alcohol, tobacco, and foods that irritate your mouth and throat.
Sucking ice chips may sometimes help relieve mouth or throat pain. But if you are having radiotherapy to the head or neck, do not suck on ice. It can cause damage.
Your hair will get thinner. Or you may lose all the hair from your head. You may also lose your eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as other body hair. Hair loss usually starts after your first or second treatment.
Your nurse can talk to you about ways to cope with hair loss. There are ways to cover up hair loss if you want to. Your scalp may be sensitive. It is important to cover your head to protect your skin when you are out in the sun.
Hair loss is almost always temporary. Your hair will usually grow back after treatment finishes.
Feeling tired is a common side effect of this treatment. It is often worse towards the end of treatment and for some weeks after it has finished. Try to pace yourself and plan your day so you have time to rest. Gentle exercise, like short walks, can give you more energy.
If you feel sleepy, do not drive or use machinery.
Chemotherapy may affect your skin. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what to expect. If your skin feels dry, try using an unperfumed moisturising cream every day. Cytarabine can cause a rash, which may be itchy. It may also cause your skin to become red, blistered or peel.
Rarely, a much more serious skin condition can develop. You may have a skin rash which then blisters, and your skin can peel. You may also feel unwell with flu-like symptoms such as a high temperature and joint pain. If you have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor or hospital straight away.
Always tell your doctor or nurse about any skin changes. They can give you advice and may prescribe creams or medicines to help. Any changes to your skin are usually temporary and improve when treatment finishes.
During treatment and for several months afterwards, you will be more sensitive to the sun. Your skin may burn more easily than usual. You can still go out in the sun, but use a sun cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, and cover up with clothing and a hat. Your skin may darken. It will return to its normal colour after you finish treatment.
Muscle or joint pain
You may get pain in your muscles or joints for a few days after treatment. If this happens, tell your doctor so they can give you painkillers. Tell them if the pain does not get better. Having warm baths and taking regular rests may help.
Abdominal (tummy) pain
Effects on the lungs
This treatment can cause changes to the lungs. Tell your doctor straight away if you develop:
- a cough
- a fever (high temperature)
If you have high dose cytarabine, these side effects may come on very suddenly.
You should also tell your doctor if any existing breathing problems get worse. You may have tests to check your lungs.
Effects on the nervous system
High doses of cytarabine can affect the nervous system. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you:
- feel very drowsy, confused, dizzy or unsteady
- have problems with coordination or speech
- have flickering eye movements you cannot control.
Rarely, this treatment can cause seizures (fits).
If you develop these side effects, your doctor may make changes to your treatment. It is important not to drive or operate machinery if you notice these effects.
Effects on the heart
This treatment can affect how the heart works. You may have tests to see how well your heart is working. These may be done before, during and after treatment.
If the treatment is causing heart problems, your doctor may change the type of treatment you are having.Contact your doctor straight away on the 24-hour number the hospital has given you if you have any of these symptoms during or after treatment:
- pain or tightness in your chest
- changes to your heartbeat.
Other conditions can cause these symptoms, but it is important to get them checked by a doctor. If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.
Tumour lysis syndrome (TLS)
This treatment may cause cancer cells to die and break down very quickly. When cancer cells break down, it can lead to a sudden release of chemicals into the blood. This is called tumour lysis syndrome (TLS).
Your kidneys can usually keep these chemicals in balance, but they might not be able to cope with very large amounts. The chemical imbalance can affect how well your kidneys work and cause problems with your heart rhythm.
You will have regular blood tests to check the levels of these chemicals.
If you are at risk of TLS, your doctor can give treatment to help prevent it. You may have:
- extra fluids through a drip
- medicines such as rasburicase or allopurinol
Drinking at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluid a day will also help.
Sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet
You may get sore and red palms of hands and soles of feet. The skin may also begin to peel. This is called palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome. It usually gets better after treatment ends.
Tell your doctor or nurse about any changes to your hands or feet. They can give you advice and prescribe creams to improve any symptoms you have. It can help to:
- keep your hands and feet cool
- moisturise your hands and feet regularly
- avoid tight-fitting socks, shoes and gloves.
Numb or tingling hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)
High doses of cytarabine can affect the nerves. This can cause numb, tingling or painful hands or feet. You may find it hard to fasten buttons or do other fiddly tasks.
Tell your doctor if you have these symptoms. They sometimes need to lower the dose of the drug. The symptoms usually improve slowly after treatment finishes, but for some people they may never go away. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about this.
Blood clot risk
Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Symptoms of a blood clot include:
- throbbing pain, redness or swelling in a leg or arm
- suddenly feeling breathless or coughing
- sharp chest pain, which may be worse when you cough or take a deep breath.
If you have any of these symptoms, contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have been given. If you cannot get through to your doctor, call the NHS urgent advice number on 111.
A blood clot is serious, but it can be treated with drugs that thin the blood (anticoagulants). Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
You can help reduce the risk of developing a blood clot by:
- staying active during treatment
- drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.
You may be given anticoagulants to help prevent a clot.
Some medicines can affect how this treatment works or be harmful when you are having it. Always tell your cancer doctor about any drugs you are taking or planning to take, such as:
- medicines you have been prescribed
- medicines you buy in a shop or chemist
- vitamins, herbal drugs and complementary therapies.
Tell other doctors, pharmacists or dentists who prescribe or give you medicines that you are having this cancer treatment.
You can visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) for more detailed information about your treatment.
If you have sex in the first few days after this treatment, you should use barrier protection such as a condom or dental dam. This will protect your partner if any of the drug is in your semen or vaginal fluids.
Changes to periods
If you have a period, these may become irregular or stop while you are having this treatment. This may be temporary, but it can sometimes be permanent. Your menopause may start sooner than it would have done. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
You are advised not to breastfeed while having this treatment, or for some time after treatment finishes. This is because the drugs could be passed to the baby through breast milk.
Your doctor or nurse can give you more information.
Medical and dental treatment
If you need medical treatment for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses you are having cancer treatment. Give them the contact details for your cancer doctor so they can ask for advice.
If you think you need dental treatment, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse. Always tell your dentist you are having cancer treatment.
Vaccinations can reduce your risk of getting certain infections. Your doctor or nurse may talk to you about having vaccinations.
Doctors usually recommend that people with cancer have a flu vaccination and a coronavirus (covid) vaccination. These are both inactivated vaccinations that can help reduce the risk of infection. People with weak immune systems can have these, as they are not live vaccinations.
If your immune system is weak, you need to avoid live vaccinations. This is because they can make you unwell. Live vaccines contain a very weak version of the illness they are vaccinating you against. Your cancer doctor or GP can tell you more about live and inactivated vaccinations.
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert health professionals and people living with cancer.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
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