Cytarabine (Generic Name)

Other Names: ara-C, cytosine arabinoside, Cytosar-U®

About This Drug

Cytarabine is used to treat cancer. This drug is given in the vein (IV). 

Possible Side Effects (More Common) 

  • Bone marrow depression. This is a decrease in the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may raise your risk of infection, make you tired and weak (fatigue), and raise your risk of bleeding.
  • Nausea and throwing up (vomiting). These symptoms may happen within a few hours after your treatment and may last up to 48 to 72 hours. Medicines are available to stop or lessen these side effects.
  • Decreased appetite (decreased hunger)
  • Changes in the way food and drinks taste
  • Rash
  • Eye irritation.  You may have watery eyes.  Your eyes and eye lids may become red and painful.  This can happen when cytarabine is given at high doses.
  • Changes in your liver function.  Your doctor will check your liver function as needed. 
  • Loose bowel movements (diarrhea) that may last for a few days
  • Soreness of the mouth and throat. You may have red areas, white patches, or sores that hurt.

Possible Side Effects (Less Common) 

  • Hair loss: Hair loss is often complete scalp hair loss and can involve loss of eyebrows, eyelashes, and pubic hair. You may notice this a few days or weeks after treatment has started. Most often hair loss is temporary; your hair should grow back when treatment is done.
  • Difficulty walking, balance, or changes in the way you walk may happen with higher doses.
  • Confusion, extreme tiredness, headache and dizziness can also happen with higher doses
  • A syndrome can happen 6-12 hours after you get this drug causing fever, muscle and bone pain, chest pain, a raised red rash, eye inflammation and irritation. If you get any of these symptoms let your doctor know so you can be treated.

Allergic Reactions

Serious allergic reactions including anaphylaxis are rare.  While you are getting this drug in your vein (IV), tell your nurse right away if you have any of these symptoms of an allergic reaction:

  • Trouble catching your breath
  • Feeling like your tongue or throat are swelling
  • Feeling your heart beat quickly  or in a not normal way (palpitations)
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Flushing, itching, rash, and/or hives

Treating Side Effects

  • Mouth care is very important. Your mouth care should consist of routine, gentle cleaning of your teeth or dentures and rinsing your mouth with a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water or ½ teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces of water. This should be done at least after each meal and at bedtime.
  • If you have mouth sores, avoid mouthwash that has alcohol. Also avoid alcohol and smoking because they can bother your mouth and throat.
  • Drink 6-8 cups of fluids each day unless your doctor has told you to limit your fluid intake due to some other health problem. A cup is 8 ounces of fluid. If you throw up or have loose bowel movements you should drink more fluids so that you do not become dehydrated (lack water in the body due to losing too much fluid).
  • Talk with your nurse about getting a wig before you lose your hair. Also, call the American Cancer Society at 800-ACS-2345 to find out information about the “Look Good...Feel Better” program close to where you live. It is a free program where women getting chemotherapy can learn about wigs, turbans and scarves as well as makeup techniques and skin and nail care.
  • If you get a rash, do not put anything on it unless your doctor or nurse says you may. Keep the area around the rash clean and dry. Ask your doctor for medicine if your rash bothers you.
  • While you are getting this drug in your vein, please tell your nurse right away if you have pain, redness, or swelling at the site of the IV infusion.
  • You may be given steroid eye drops to prevent and treat eye inflammation. If you are given eye drops, please take them as ordered by your doctor.  (You will only be given eye drops if you are receiving high doses of cytarabine).

Food and Drug Interactions

There are no known interactions of Cytarabine with food. This drug may interact with other medicines. Tell your doctor and pharmacist about all the medicines and dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs and others) that you are taking at this time. The safety and use of dietary supplements and alternative diets are often not known. Using these might affect your cancer or interfere with your treatment. Until more is known, you should not use dietary supplements or alternative diets without your cancer doctor's help.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor or nurse right away if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Fever of 100.5 F (38 C) or higher
  • Chills
  • Bleeding or bruising that is not normal
  • Nausea that stops you from eating or drinking
  • Throwing up more than 3 times a day
  • Severe stomach or abdominal pain
  • Confusion, extreme tiredness, headaches
  • Blurred vision or other changes in eyesight
  • Trouble walking or changes in the way you walk
  • Trouble keeping your balance
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Loose bowel movements (diarrhea) more than 4 times a day or diarrhea with weakness or feeling lightheaded
  • Signs of liver problems: dark urine, pale bowel movements, bad stomach pain, feeling very tired and weak, unusual itching, or yellowing of the eyes or skin

Call your doctor or nurse as soon as possible if any of these symptoms happen: 

  • Rash that is not relieved by prescribed medicines
  • Pain in your mouth or throat that makes it hard to eat or drink

Sexual Problems and Reproductive Concerns

  • Infertility warning: Sexual problems and reproduction concerns may happen. In both men and women, this drug may affect your ability to have children. This cannot be determined before your treatment. Talk with your doctor or nurse if you plan to have children.  Ask for information on sperm or egg banking. 
    • In men, this drug may interfere with your ability to make sperm, but it should not change your ability to have sexual relations. 
    • In women, menstrual bleeding may become irregular or stop while you are getting this drug. Do not assume that you cannot become pregnant if you do not have a menstrual period.
    • Women may go through signs of menopause (change of life) like vaginal dryness or itching. Vaginal lubricants can be used to lessen vaginal dryness, itching, and pain during sexual relations. 
    • Genetic counseling is available for you to talk about the effects of this drug therapy on future pregnancies. Also, a genetic counselor can look at the possible risk of problems in the unborn baby due to this medicine if an exposure happens during pregnancy.
  • Pregnancy warning: This drug may have harmful effects on the unborn child, so effective methods of birth control should be used during your cancer treatment.
  • Breast feeding warning: It is not known if this drug passes into breast milk.  For this reason, women should talk to their doctor about the risks and benefits of breast feeding during treatment with this drug because this drug may enter the breast milk and badly harm a breast feeding baby.

Revised July 2014

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