Cytarabine (Generic Name)

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

About This Drug

Cytarabine is used to treat cancer. This drug is given intravenously (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. Bone marrow depression usually occurs five to seven days after the drug is given, and may increase your risk of infection, fatigue, and bleeding.
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Metallic taste in the mouth
  • Increased total bilirubin in your blood.  This may mean that you have changes in your liver function. Your blood work will be monitored by your doctor.
  • Changes in your liver function.  Your doctor will monitor your liver function as needed.  
  • Diarrhea that may last for several days
  • Soreness of the mouth and throat. You may have red areas, white patches, or sores that are painful.
  • Rash
  • Eye inflammation; sensitivity to bright light; excessive tearing; blurred vision at higher doses.

Possible Side Effects (Less Common) 

  • Hair loss is usually complete scalp hair loss and can include loss of eyebrows, eyelashes, and pubic hair. You may notice this a few days or weeks after treatment has begun.
    Usually hair loss is temporary; your hair should grow back when treatment is completed.
    Hair thinning is temporary. Your hair should grow back when treatment is completed
  • Difficulty walking or changes in the way you walk may occur at higher doses.
  • Difficulty with balance may occur at higher doses.
  • Confusion, excessive tiredness, headache and dizziness can also occur at higher doses
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • A syndrome can occur 6-12 hours after you receive this drug causing fever, muscle and bone pain, chest pain, a raised red rash, eye inflammation and irritation. If any of these symptoms occur let your doctor know so you can be treated.

Sexual Problems and Reproductive Concerns

  • In men and women both, this drug may temporarily or permanently affect your ability to have children. This cannot be determined before your therapy. 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 receiving this drug. Do not assume that you cannot become pregnant if you do not have a menstrual period. Women may experience signs of menopause like vaginal dryness or itching.
    • 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.
    • Speak with your doctor or nurse if you plan to have children.  Ask for information on sperm or egg banking.
    • Genetic counseling is available to you to discuss the effects of this drug therapy on future pregnancies. In addition, a genetic counselor can review the potential risks of problems in the fetus due to this medication if an exposure during pregnancy has occurred. 
    • Breast feeding warning: It is not known if this drug passes into breast milk.  For this reason, women are advised to discuss with their doctor the risks and benefits of breast feeding during treatment with this drug because this drug may enter the breast milk and seriously harm a breast feeding infant.
    • Vaginal lubricants can be used to lessen vaginal dryness, itching, and pain during sexual relations.

Treating Side Effects

  • Mouth care is very important. Your mouth care should consist of regular, gentle cleaning of your teeth or dentures and rinsing your mouth with a mixture of ½ teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water or 1/2 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) in 8 ounces of water. This should be done at least after every meal and at bedtime.
  • If you have mouth sores, avoid mouthwash that contains alcohol. Avoid alcohol and smoking because they can irritate your mouth and throat.
  • Drink 6-8 cups of fluids every day unless your doctor has told you to restrict your fluid intake due to another medical condition. A cup is 8 ounces of fluid. If you vomit or have diarrhea, you should drink more fluids so that you do not become dehydrated.
  • Speak with your nurse about obtaining 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 undergoing chemotherapy learn about wigs, turbans and scarves as well as makeup techniques and skin and nail care.
  • Do not put anything on your rash unless your doctor or nurse says you may. Keep the area around the rash clean and dry. Ask your doctor for medication if your rash is bothersome.
  • During the IV infusion, if you experience pain, redness, or swelling at the site of the IV infusion, please tell your nurse immediately.
  • You may be prescribed steroid eye drops to prevent and treat eye inflammation. If you are take as ordered by your doctor.

Food and Drug Interactions

There are no known interactions of Cytarabine with food. This drug may interact with other medication. Tell your doctor and pharmacist about all the medication and dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs and others) that you are currently taking. The safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements and alternative diets are often unknown. Using these might unexpectedly 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 advice.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor or nurse immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever of 100.5 F (38 C) or above
  • Chills
  • Unusual bleeding or bruising
  • Uncontrolled nausea that prevents you from eating and drinking
  • Vomiting more than twice in one day
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Confusion, excessive tiredness, headaches
  • Eye pain or discomfort; blurred vision
  • Difficulty walking or changes in the way you walk
  • Difficulty keeping your balance
  • Shortness of breath
  • Diarrhea of four stools a day or diarrhea with weakness or lightheadedness

Call your doctor or nurse as soon as possible if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Rash
  • Painful mouth or throat that makes it difficult to eat or drink
  • Yellowing of skin or eyes

Revised December 2011

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