Rituximab

Rituximab is used to treat lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). It may sometimes be used to treat other cancers.

What is rituximab?

Rituximab is used to treat lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). It may sometimes be used to treat other cancers.

Rituximab belongs to a group of targeted therapy drugs called monoclonal antibodies. It is best to read this information with our general information about targeted therapy and the type of cancer you have. 

Monoclonal antibodies target specific proteins (receptors) on the surface of cells. Rituximab targets a protein called CD20 found on the surface of white blood cells called B-lymphocytes (B-cells). 

Rituximab locks on to CD20. It then triggers the body’s immune system to attack the cells and destroy them. Rituximab destroys both abnormal and normal B-cells. Once treatment is over, the body can replace the normal B-cells.

Your doctor will talk to you about this treatment and its possible side effects before you agree (consent) to have treatment.

More information about this treatment

This information is correct at time of publishing. But sometimes the types of cancer this treatment is used for, or treatment side effects, may change between revision dates.

You can talk to your cancer team if you want more detailed information about this treatment. Or visit the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website, which has patient information leaflets (PIL) for individual drugs.

How rituximab is given

You will be given rituximab at a day unit, as an outpatient, or during a stay in hospital. Rituximab can be given on its own or with other cancer drugs.

During treatment, you usually see a:

  • blood cancer doctor (haematologist)
  • cancer nurse or specialist nurse
  • specialist pharmacist. 

This is who we mean when we mention doctor, nurse or pharmacist in this information.

Before or on the day of each treatment, a nurse or person trained to take blood (phlebotomist) will take a blood sample from you. This is to check that it is safe for you to have treatment.

You will speak to a doctor, nurse or pharmacist before you have treatment. They will ask how you have been feeling. If your blood results are okay, the pharmacy team will prepare your targeted therapy. 

Rituximab can be given as a drip into a vein (intravenous infusion) or as an injection under the skin. You can only have rituximab as an injection if you have already had at least one treatment as an intravenous infusion. 

Rituximab into the vein can be given: 

  • through a short, thin tube 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 rituximab into a vein, it will be given through a pump. This will give you the treatment over a set time. Rituximab as an injection is given over 5 minutes.

The first infusion will be given slowly because it can cause a reaction. Before treatment, you will be given medicines to help prevent or reduce any reaction. You may have the first infusion in hospital. 

After the first treatment, you can usually have rituximab in the day unit or outpatient department. You can also have it over shorter periods of time.

Your course of treatment

You usually have a course of several cycles of treatment over a few months. Your nurse, pharmacist or doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you.

About side effects

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.

You may have some rarer side effects that we have not listed here. Always tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any side effects you have.

Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you drugs to help control some side effects. It is important to take them exactly as they tell you. This means the drugs will be more likely to work for you. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist 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.

Hepatitis B reactivation

If you have had hepatitis B (a liver infection) in the past, rituximab can make it active again. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about this and test you for hepatitis B.

If your test shows that you have had it in the past you may be given treatment to prevent it becoming active again.

If you have active hepatitis B, you will not have treatment with rituximab.

Side effects while treatment is being given

Some people may have side effects while they are being given this treatment or shortly after they have it:

Allergic reaction

Some people have an allergic reaction to monoclonal antibody treatment while they are having it. The first infusion is the most likely to cause a reaction, so it is usually given more slowly than later treatments. Before treatment, you will be given medicines to help prevent or reduce any reaction.

Signs of a reaction can include:

  • feeling hot or flushed
  • shivering
  • itching
  • a skin rash
  • feeling dizzy or sick
  • a headache
  • feeling breathless or wheezy
  • swelling of your face or mouth
  • pain in your back, tummy (abdomen) or chest.

Your nurse will check you for signs of a reaction during your infusion. If you feel unwell or have any of these signs, tell them straight away. If you do have a reaction, they can treat it 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.

Blood pressure

Your blood pressure may fall while you are having rituximab. If you usually take medicine to lower your blood pressure, your doctor may ask you not to take it for 12 hours before having rituximab. Sometimes rituximab can make your blood pressure go up. Your nurse will check your blood pressure regularly.

Tumour pain

During the infusion, you may have mild pain in the parts of the body where you have cancer. You may be given painkillers to help with this.

Problems at the injection site

If you have rituximab as an injection, you may have some redness and swelling where it is given (injection site). Your nurse can give you advice on coping with this.

Common side effects

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
  • breathlessness
  • diarrhoea
  • 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.

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.

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:

  • nosebleeds
  • 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.

Feeling sick

Your doctor may 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.

Raised blood sugar levels

This treatment can raise your blood sugar levels. If you have a raised blood sugar level, you may:

  • feeling thirsty
  • needing to pass urine (pee) more often
  • feeling tired.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.

If you have diabetes, your blood sugar levels may be higher than usual. Your doctor will talk to you about how to manage this. You may need to change your insulin or tablet dose.

Constipation

This treatment can cause constipation. Constipation means that you are not able to pass stools (poo) as often as you normally do. It can become difficult or painful. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Drink at least 2 litres (3½ pints) of fluids each day.
  • Eat high-fibre foods, such as fruit, vegetables and wholemeal bread.
  • Do regular gentle exercise, like going for short walks.

If you have constipation, contact the hospital on the 24-hour number for advice. They can give you drugs called laxatives to help. 

If you have not been able to pass stools for over 2 days and are being sick, contact the 24-hour number straight away. 

Diarrhoea

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.

Skin changes

This treatment may affect your skin. It may cause a rash, which might be itchy. You may notice a numbness, tingling, pricking or burning feeling in 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.

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 changes to your skin. They can give you advice and may prescribe creams or medicines to help. Skin changes usually improve after treatment finishes.

Hair loss

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.

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.

Eye problems

This treatment may make your eyes feel sore, red and itchy. This is called conjunctivitis. Your doctor will prescribe eye drops to help. It is important to use these as explained.

Always tell your doctor or nurse if you have eye pain or notice any change in your vision.

Mood and sleep changes

You may have some mood changes during this treatment. You may feel low, depressed or anxious. You may have trouble sleeping. Tell your doctor or nurse if you notice any changes.

Effects on the lungs

This treatment can cause changes to the lungs. Tell your doctor if you develop:

  • a cough
  • wheezing
  • breathlessness.

You should also tell them if any existing breathing problems get worse. You may have tests to check your lungs.

Fluid build-up

You may gain weight, or your face, ankles and legs may swell. This improves slowly after your treatment has finished. Your doctor may give you drugs to help reduce the swelling.

Less common side 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
  • breathlessness
  • dizziness
  • 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.

Effects on the brain

Very rarely, this treatment can affect the brain. This can cause symptoms including:

  • drowsiness or confusion
  • memory problems
  • trouble speaking
  • problems with balance, moving, or walking
  • changes in eyesight

Contact the hospital straight away if you have any of these symptoms. If someone with you notices you have any of these symptoms, they should contact the hospital straight away.

It is important not to drive or operate machinery if you have any of these symptoms.

Tumour lysis syndrome (TLS)

This treatment may cause cancer cells to die and break down quickly. When cancer cells break down very quickly, it can cause a sudden release of large amounts of chemicals into the blood. This is called tumour lysis syndrome (TLS).

Your kidneys can usually keep these chemicals balanced. 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 you 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.

Hearing changes

This treatment may cause ear pain or hearing changes, including hearing loss. You may have ringing in the ears. This is called tinnitus. You may also become unable to hear some high-pitched sounds. Hearing changes usually get better after this treatment ends. But some can be permanent. Tell your doctor if you notice any changes in your hearing.

Changes to your taste

You may get a bitter or metal taste in your mouth. Sucking sugar-free sweets may help with this. Some foods may taste different or have no taste. Try different foods to find out what tastes best to you. Taste changes usually get better after treatment finishes. Your nurse can give you more advice.

Other information

Blood clot risk

Cancer and some cancer treatments can increase the risk of a blood clot. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour number if you have any of these symptoms during or after treatment:

  • throbbing pain or swelling in a leg or arm
  • reddening of the skin in the area – if you have black or brown skin, this can be harder to notice, but the skin might become darker
  • suddenly feeling breathless or coughing.

Always call 999 if you have:

  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing.

A blood clot is serious, but it can be treated with drugs called anticoagulants. These thin the blood. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can give you more information about preventing and treating blood clots.

Vaccinations

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.

Other medicines

Some medicines can affect how this treatment works or be harmful while you are having it. Always tell your cancer doctor, nurse or pharmacist about any drugs you are taking or planning to take, such as: 

Contraception

Your doctor will advise you not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant while having this treatment. The drugs may harm a developing baby. It is important to use contraception during your treatment and for a while after treatment finishes. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can tell you more about this.

Breastfeeding

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.

Fertility

Some cancer drugs can affect whether you can get pregnant or make someone pregnant. If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

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.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    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.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

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We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

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Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 July 2023
|
Next review: 01 July 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.