Possible side effects

Chemotherapy for head and neck cancer can cause different side effects depending on the drugs you are given.

Most side effects can be reduced or managed. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about this and tell you the most likely side effects. Side effects usually improve gradually when treatment is over. The most common ones include:

increased risk of infection

  • anaemia (reduced number of blood cells)
  • tiredness
  • feeling sick
  • sore mouth
  • hair loss or hair thinning
  • tingling in your hands or feet
  • changes to your hearing.

Always contact the hospital immediately if you think you may have an infection, for example if you have a temperature or you suddenly feel unwell. Or if you have any symptoms of an infection, such as a cold, sore throat, cough, passing urine often, diarrhoea or feeling shivery and shaky.

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 called neutropenia.

If you have an infection, it is important to treat it as soon as possible. Contact the hospital straight away on the 24-hour contact number you have if:

  • your temperature goes over 37.5°C (99.5F)
  • you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
  • you have symptoms of an infection.

Symptoms of an infection include:

  • feeling shivery
  • a sore throat
  • a cough
  • diarrhoea
  • needing to pass urine often.

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 chemotherapy. If your white blood cell count is low, your doctor may delay your treatment for a short time.

Bruising and bleeding

Chemotherapy can reduce the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are cells that help the blood to clot. If you develop any unexplained bruising or bleeding, such as nosebleeds, bleeding gums, blood spots or rashes on the skin, contact your doctor or the hospital straight away.

Anaemia (reduced number of red blood cells)

If chemotherapy reduces the number of red blood cells in your blood, you may become very tired and feel you have no energy. You may also become breathless and feel dizzy and light-headed. These symptoms happen because the red blood cells contain haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body.

If your haemoglobin is low you may be offered a blood transfusion. You’ll feel more energetic and any breathlessness will be eased.

Feeling sick or being sick

Some chemotherapy drugs can make you feel sick (nauseated) or possibly be sick (vomit). Your cancer specialist will prescribe anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs to prevent this. Let your doctor or nurse know if your anti-sickness drugs are not helping, as there are several different types you can try. We have more information about controlling nausea and vomiting.

Sore mouth

Chemotherapy can cause mouth problems such as a sore mouth, mouth ulcers or infection. Drinking plenty of fluids, and cleaning your teeth regularly and gently with a soft toothbrush can help to reduce the risk of this happening. Your chemotherapy nurse will explain how to look after your mouth to reduce the risk of problems. They can give you mouthwashes, medicines and gels to help.

We have some useful tips on coping with a sore mouth during chemotherapy.

Effects on the nerves

Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the nerves in your hands or feet. This can cause tingling or numbness, or a feeling like pins and needles. This is called peripheral neuropathy.

It’s important to let your doctor know if this happens. They may need to change the dose of the chemotherapy drug. Usually, peripheral neuropathy gradually gets better when chemotherapy is over but sometimes it’s permanent.

Changes in hearing

If you have treatment with cisplatin, you may have changes in your hearing. You may have ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and you may lose the ability to hear some high-pitched sounds. Hearing loss can be more severe with higher doses and longer courses of treatment. Very occasionally, your sense of balance may be affected.

Any hearing loss may be permanent. However, tinnitus usually improves when treatment ends. Tell your doctor if you notice any loss of hearing or tinnitus. They may suggest altering the dose of your chemotherapy. We have more information on coping with hearing changes.

Tiredness (fatigue)

You’re likely to become tired and have to take things slowly. Try to pace yourself and save your energy for things that you want to do or that need doing. Balance rest with some physical activity – even going for short walks will help increase your energy levels. We have helpful tips on coping with tiredness.

Hair loss

Some chemotherapy drugs may cause hair loss. Some people may have complete hair loss including eyelashes and eyebrows. Others may only experience partial hair loss or thinning. It depends on what chemotherapy drugs you are having (your doctor or nurse can tell you more about what to expect). If you do experience hair loss your hair should start to grow back within about 3–6 months of the end of treatment. It 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 and how to look after your scalp.

Some chemotherapy departments may offer scalp cooling to reduce hair loss during chemotherapy. We have more information about coping with hair loss.

Changes in the way the kidneys work

Cisplatin can affect how your kidneys work. You will have blood tests before and during treatment to check this. Your nurse will ask you to drink plenty of fluid. This is to protect your kidneys. Tell them if there are any changes in how much urine you are producing.

Back to Side effects of chemotherapy

Late effects of chemotherapy

Late effects are side effects you still have six months after chemotherapy, or side effects that begin years later.