Care During Chemotherapy and Beyond
Generic name: Cytarabine
Trade names: Cytosar-U®
Other names: Ara-C, Arabinosylcytosine
Chemocare.com uses generic names in all descriptions of drugs. Cytosar-U is the
trade name for Cytarabine. Ara-C and Arabinosylcytosine are other names for Cytarabine.
In some cases, health care professionals may use the trade name Cytosar-U or other
names Ara-C or Arabinosylcytosine when referring to the generic drug name Cytarabine.
Drug type: Ara-C is an anti-cancer ("antineoplastic" or "cytotoxic")
chemotherapy drug. This medication is classified as an "antimetabolite."
(For more detail, see "How this drug works" section below).
What this drug is used for:
- Cytarabine is used to treat different forms of leukemia, including acute and chronic
myelogenous (AML and CML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). It is also
used to treat lymphoma, meningeal leukemia and lymphoma (cancers found in the lining
of the brain and spinal cord)
Note: If a drug has been approved for one use, physicians
may elect to use this same drug for other problems if they believe it may be helpful.
How this drug is given:
- Cytarabine may be given as an infusion into the vein (intravenous or IV).
- As an injection into the layer of tissue between the skin and the muscle (subcutaneous
- As an injection into the muscle (intramuscular or IM).
- Another method it is given is by intraventricular or intrathecal infusion.
This method is used when drugs need to reach the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) the fluid
that is surrounding the brain and spinal cord, the drug is infused directly into
the spinal fluid.
- There is no pill form of cytarabine.
- The amount of cytarabine that you receive and the way it is given depends on many
factors, including the type of cancer you have, your height and weight, your general
health, any other health problems you may have. Your doctor will determine
your dose, how it should be given and the schedule.
Important things to remember about the side effects of cytarabine:
- Most people do not experience all of the side effects listed.
- Side effects are often predictable in terms of their onset and duration.
- Side effects are almost always reversible and will go away after treatment is complete.
- There are many options to help minimize or prevent side effects.
- There is no relationship between the presence or severity of side effects and the
effectiveness of the medication.
- Side effects and their severity depend on how much of the drug is given. In
other words, high doses may produce more severe side effects.
The following side effects are common (occurring in greater than 30%) for
patients taking cytarabine:
- Low blood counts. Your white and red blood cells and platelets may temporarily decrease.
This can put you at risk for infection, anemia and/or bleeding.
Nadir: Meaning low point, nadir is the point in time between chemotherapy
cycles in which you experience low blood counts.
Onset: 4-7 days
Nadir: White blood cells: 7-10 days, platelets: 12-15 days
Recovery: 21-28 days
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Mouth sores (usually occur 7-10 days after therapy).
- Blood test abnormalities: Increase in blood level of uric acid. A pill called
allopurinol may be given to decrease these levels.
- Increases in blood tests measuring liver function. These return to normal
once treatment is discontinued. More often associated with high-dose regimens.
These side effects are less common side effects (occurring in about 10-29%)
of patients receiving cytarabine:
- Loss of appetite
- Skin rash, redness and itching
- Flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, generalized aches and pains) within the first
few days of treatment.
- Pain redness and skin peeling of the palms of hands and soles of feet (hand-foot
syndrome) may occur with high-dose therapy (rare). Use of steroid creams or
moisturizers may be helpful.
- Temporary hair loss (uncommon, but thinning may occur).
- Eye pain, tearing, sensitivity to light and blurred vision may occur with high-dose
therapy. Often steroid drops or ointment to the eyes are used to prevent or
relieve this condition.
- Dizziness, headache, excessive sleepiness, confusion, loss of balance may occur
in up to 10% of patients receiving high dose therapy. Onset is usually 5 days
after treatment and may last up to 1 week. More often these toxicities are
mild and reversible. (see central neurotoxicity).
Not all side effects are listed above, some that are rare (occurring in less than
10% of patients) are not listed here. However, you should always inform your
health care provider if you experience any unusual symptoms.
When to contact your doctor or health care provider:
Contact your health care provider immediately, day or night,
if you should experience any of the following symptoms:
- Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher or chills (possible signs of infection).
- Chest pain or heart palpitations
- Inability to pass urine
The following symptoms require medical attention, but are not an emergency.
Contact your health care provider within 24 hours of noticing any of the
- Diarrhea (4-6 episodes in a 24 hour period)
- Nausea (unable to drink fluids and unrelieved with prescription medication).
- Vomiting (more than 4-5 times in a 24 hour period)
- Unusual bleeding or bruising
- Black or tarry stools, or blood in your stools or urine
- Extreme fatigue (unable to carry on self-care activities)
- Mouth sores (painful redness, swelling or ulcers)
- Cough and/or shortness of breath
- Excessive sleepiness or confusion
- Changes in balance and coordination.
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes
- Changes in vision or burning/or tearing of eyes
- Swelling, redness and pain in one leg or arm and not the other
- Stomach pains
Always inform your health care provider if you experience any unusual symptoms.
- Before starting cytarabine treatment, make sure you tell your doctor about any other
medications you are taking (including prescription, over-the-counter, vitamins,
herbal remedies, etc.).
- Do not receive any kind of immunization or vaccination without your doctor's approval
while taking cytarabine.
- Inform your health care professional if you are pregnant or may be pregnant prior
to starting this treatment. Pregnancy category D (cytarabine may be hazardous to
the fetus. Women who are pregnant or become pregnant must be advised of the
potential hazard to the fetus).
- For both men and women: Do not conceive a child (get pregnant) while taking cytarabine.
Barrier methods of contraception, such as condoms, are recommended. Discuss with
your doctor when you may safely become pregnant or conceive a child after therapy.
- Do not breast feed while taking this medication.
- Drink at least two to three quarts of fluid every 24 hours, unless you are instructed
- You may be at risk of infection so try to avoid crowds or people with colds, and
report fever or any other signs of infection immediately to your health care provider.
- Wash your hands often.
- To help treat/prevent mouth sores, use a soft toothbrush, and rinse three times
a day with 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of baking soda and/or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt mixed
with 8 ounces of water.
- Use an electric razor and a soft toothbrush to minimize bleeding.
- Avoid contact sports or activities that could cause injury.
- To reduce nausea, take anti-nausea medications as prescribed by your doctor, and
eat small, frequent meals.
- Keep palms of hands and soles of feet moist using emollients such as Aveeno®, Udder Cream, Lubriderm®
or Bag Balm®.
- Avoid sun exposure. Wear SPF 15 (or higher) sunblock and protective clothing.
- In general, drinking alcoholic beverages should be kept to a minimum or avoided
completely. You should discuss this with your doctor.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Maintain good nutrition.
- If you experience symptoms or side effects, be sure to discuss them with your health
care team. They can prescribe medications and/or offer other suggestions that
are effective in managing such problems.
Monitoring and testing:
You will be checked regularly by your doctor while you are taking cytarabine, to
monitor side effects and check your response to therapy. Periodic blood work
to monitor your complete blood count (CBC), the function of other organs (such as
your kidneys and liver) and check your uric acid levels will also be ordered by
How this drug works:
Chemotherapy (anti-neoplastic drugs)
Cancerous tumors are characterized by cell division, which is no longer controlled
as it is in normal tissue. "Normal" cells stop dividing when they come
into contact with like cells, a mechanism known as contact inhibition. Cancerous
cells lose this ability. Cancer cells no longer have the normal checks and
balances in place that control and limit cell division. The process of cell
division, whether normal or cancerous cells, is through the cell cycle. The
cell cycle goes from the resting phase, through active growing phases, and then
to mitosis (division).
The ability of chemotherapy to kill cancer cells depends on its ability to halt
cell division. Usually, the drugs work by damaging the RNA or DNA that tells
the cell how to copy itself in division. If the cells are unable to divide,
they die. The faster the cells are dividing, the more likely it is that chemotherapy
will kill the cells, causing the tumor to shrink. They also induce cell suicide
(self-death or apoptosis).
Chemotherapy drugs that affect cells only when they are dividing are called cell-cycle
specific. Chemotherapy drugs that affect cells when they are at rest are called
cell-cycle non-specific. The scheduling of chemotherapy is set based on the
type of cells, rate at which they divide, and the time at which a given drug is
likely to be effective. This is why chemotherapy is typically given in cycles.
Chemotherapy is most effective at killing cells that are rapidly dividing.
Unfortunately, chemotherapy does not know the difference between the cancerous cells
and the normal cells. The "normal" cells will grow back and be healthy but in the
meantime, side effects occur. The "normal" cells most commonly affected by
chemotherapy are the blood cells, the cells in the mouth, stomach and bowel, and
the hair follicles; resulting in low blood counts, mouth sores, nausea, diarrhea,
and/or hair loss. Different drugs may affect different parts of the body.
Cytarabine belongs to the category of chemotherapy called antimetabolites.
Antimetabolites are very similar to normal substances within the cell. When
the cells incorporate these substances into the cellular metabolism, they are unable
to divide. Antimetabolites are cell-cycle specific. They attack cells
at very specific phases in the cycle. Antimetabolites are classified according
to the substances with which they interfere.
- Folic acid antagonist: Methotrexate.
- Pyrimidine antagonist: 5-Fluorouracil, Foxuridine, Cytarabine,
Capecitabine, and Gemcitabine.
- Purine antagonist: 6-Mercaptopurine and 6-Thioguanine.
- Adenosine deaminase inhibitor: Cladribine, Fludarabine and
Note: We strongly encourage you to talk with your health
care professional about your specific medical condition and treatments. The information
contained in this website is meant to be helpful and educational, but is not a substitute
for medical advice.
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