What is it?

Cytarabine is a chemotherapy drug, see chemotherapy sheet for background information. Chemotherapy kills cancerous cells which divide and grow rapidly. However healthy cells which grow quickly are also affected by the chemotherapy which is why patients can get side effects.


What is it used for?

Cytarabine is used to treat acute myeloid leukaemia and some myelodysplastic syndromes.


How does it work?

Cytarabine prevents new DNA from being made within cancer cells. Making new DNA is the first stage a cell undergoes when it is replicating and growing. Cytarabine therefore blocks cancer cells from dividing which leads to cancer cell death.


How is it given?

Cytarabine is not available in tablet form, it has to be injected into a vein. This is either by a small tube going into a vein called a cannula, which is removed after the injection is finished. The other option is to have the drug given by a long line, which is a longer tube inserted into a vein and is kept in place for a few weeks. The drug is given on the Haematology Day Unit or occasionally as an in-patient on the ward.


What are the most important side effects?

The most important side effect to be aware of is neutropenic sepsis. This will be explained to you before you start treatment. Chemotherapy affects the bone marrow so that blood cells are not produced in the normal way. This is only temporary, but leaves the body vulnerable to infection as the immune system will not be able to fight against infection in the normal way. Therefore please read the neutropenic sepsis page for full information about what to do if you feel unwell.

Like most chemotherapy drugs cytarabine can cause loss of appetite, mouth ulcers, nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhoea. Other medications are often used when chemotherapy is given to minimise these side effects.


Further information

Cytarabine at Macmillian cancer support



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Written by: Dr T Rider

Editor: Dr J Newman

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