Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can cause a number of serious side effects. Chemotherapy drugs may affect the skin, the gastrointestinal tract, the bone marrow, and other organs and body systems. Constitutional (general) symptoms include fever and aches.

Skin rashes and dry skin are common effects of chemotherapy. Temporary hair loss (alopecia) and hair thinning also can occur. Medications used to treat hereditary hair loss are not effective in preventing hair loss from chemotherapy. In December 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the first cooling cap to help reduce hair loss in female breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Gastrointestinal (GI) tract side effects include nausea and vomiting (also known as emesis or throwing up). Loss of appetite (anorexia) and weight loss also may occur. Alterations in colon function may lead to diarrhea or constipation. Additional side effects may include the development of mouth sores (stomatitis or mucositis) and inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis).

As with hair loss, these effects are temporary. In many cases, treatment is available to help prevent or substantially reduce the severity of these side effects. Here is a list of commonly used medications for the treatment of GI complications of chemotherapy.

The inside of bone is composed of a fine network of mesh-like tissue called bone marrow. Blood cells (e.g., white cells, red cells, platelets) are made and develop (mature) in the bone marrow prior to entering the blood stream. These cells are responsible for transporting oxygen (red cells), helping to control bleeding (platelets), and fighting infections (white cells). Because chemotherapy affects rapidly dividing cells, bone marrow cells are affected.

During chemotherapy, blood cell production is suppressed, causing an increased risk for infections and bleeding, increased fatigue, and a lack of exercise capacity. Depending on the degree of suppression and cell count levels, one or more medications may be administered to reverse blood cell suppression and allow chemotherapy treatments to continue as scheduled, with no dose reduction.

Constitutional symptoms include fever, body aches and pains, generalized feelings of ill health, and fatigue. Various medications can be used to treat these general side effects (e.g., acetominophen, ibuprofen, narcotic pain relievers). Other treatments options include physical therapy, counseling, and support groups.

In rare cases, IV chemotherapy drugs can leak from the intravenous line or from the patient's vein into surrounding tissue. This potentially serious side effect, which is called extravasation can result in damage to skin, tissue, muscle, and nerves, if left untreated.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 15 Dec 2015