Cytarabine (Ara-C®)

About This Drug

Cytarabine is used to treat cancer. It is given in the vein (IV), as an injection under the skin (subcutaneously), and as an injection into the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (intrathecal).

Possible Side Effects

  • Nausea and throwing up (vomiting)
  • Decreased appetite (decreased hunger)
  • Loose bowel movements (diarrhea)
  • Soreness of the mouth and throat. You may have red areas, white patches, or sores that hurt.
  • Abnormal bleeding – symptoms may be coughing up blood, throwing up blood (may look like coffee grounds), red or black tarry bowel movements, abnormally heavy menstrual flow, nosebleeds or any other unusual bleeding.
  • Severe infections, including viral, bacterial and fungal which can very rarely be life-threatening
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Changes in your liver function which can cause liver failure.

Note: Not all possible side effects are included above.

Warnings and Precautions

  • Severe bone marrow depression which can very rarely be life-threatening. 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
  • Changes in your central nervous system can happen which can very rarely be life-threatening. The central nervous system is made up of your brain and spinal cord. You could feel extreme tiredness, agitation, confusion, hallucinations (see or hear things that are not there), trouble understanding or speaking, loss of control of your bowels or bladder, eyesight changes, numbness or lack of strength to your arms, legs, face, or body, and coma. If you start to have any of these symptoms let your doctor know right away.
  • Swelling (inflammation) in the colon and other severe gastrointestinal complications - symptoms may be loose bowel movements (diarrhea) stomach cramping, and sometimes blood in the bowel movements
  • Inflammation (swelling) of the lungs which can very rarely be life-threatening. You may have a dry cough or trouble breathing.
  • Eye irritation. You may have watery eyes. Your eyes and eye lids may become red and painful. This may happen when cytarabine is given at high doses.
  • Severe allergic skin reaction. You may develop blisters on your skin that are filled with fluid or a severe red rash all over your body that may be painful.
  • Tumor lysis syndrome: This drug may act on the cancer cells very quickly. This may affect how your kidneys work.
  • Inflammation of your pancreas
  • 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 and/or nurse right away.
  • These side effects may be more severe if you are receiving high doses of this medication

Note: Some of the side effects above are very rare. If you have concerns and/or questions, please discuss them with your medical team

Important Information

  • This drug may be present in the saliva, tears, sweat, urine, stool, vomit, semen, and vaginal secretions. Talk to your doctor and/or your nurse about the necessary precautions to take during this time.
  • If you are getting this drug by injection into the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (intrathecal), your side effects might be different than those listed above. Please talk to your doctor about these side effects.

Treating Side Effects

  • To help with decreased appetite, eat small, frequent meals.
  • Eat high caloric food such as pudding, ice cream, yogurt and milkshakes.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (a minimum of eight glasses per day is recommended).
  • 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 from losing too much fluid).
  • To help with nausea and vomiting, eat small, frequent meals instead of three large meals a day. Choose foods and drinks that are at room temperature. Ask your nurse or doctor about other helpful tips and medicine that is available to help or stop lessen these symptoms.
  • If you get diarrhea, eat low-fiber foods that are high in protein and calories and avoid foods that can irritate your digestive tracts or lead to cramping.
  • Ask your nurse or doctor about medicine that can lessen or stop your diarrhea.
  • 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.
  • Manage tiredness by pacing your activities for the day.
  • Be sure to include periods of rest between energy-draining activities.
  • To decrease infection, wash your hands regularly.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold, the flu, or other infections.
  • Take your temperature as your doctor or nurse tells you, and whenever you feel like you may have a fever.
  • To help decrease bleeding, use a soft toothbrush. Check with your nurse before using dental floss.
  • Be very careful when using knives or tools.
  • Use an electric shaver instead of a razor.
  • 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.

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 if you have any of these symptoms and/or any new or unusual symptoms:

  • Fever of 100.5 F (38 C) or higher
  • Chills
  • Pain in your chest
  • Dry cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Wheezing and/or trouble breathing
  • Fatigue that interferes with your daily activities
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Blood in your urine, vomit (bright red or coffee-ground) and/or stools ( bright red, or black/tarry)
  • Confusion and/or agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Trouble understanding or speaking
  • Blurry vision or changes in your eyesight
  • Red or painful eye
  • Numbness or lack of strength to your arms, legs, face, or body
  • Flu-like symptoms: fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and fatigue (low energy, feeling weak)
  • Nausea that stops you from eating or drinkingand/or is not relieved by prescribed medicines
  • Throwing up more than 3 times a day
  • Pain in your mouth or throat that makes it hard to eat or drink
  • Loose bowel movements (diarrhea) 4 times a day or loose bowel movements with lack of strength or a feeling of being dizzy
  • Lasting loss of appetite or rapid weight loss of five pounds in a week
  • A new rash or a rash that is not relieved by prescribed medicines
  • Your leg or arm is swollen, red, warm and/or painful
  • Signs of tumor lysis: Confusion or agitation, decreased urine, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramping, numbness and/or tingling, seizures.
  • If you think you may be pregnant

Reproduction Warnings

  • Pregnancy warning: This drug can have harmful effects on the unborn baby. For this reason, be sure to talk with your doctor if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant while receiving this drug. Let your doctor know right away if you think you may be pregnant or may have impregnated your partner.
  • Breastfeeding 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 cause harm to a breast feeding baby.
  • Fertility warning: In men and women both, this drug may affect your ability to have children in the future. Talk with your doctor or nurse if you plan to have children. Ask for information on sperm or egg banking.

Revised April 2018

This information is intended to provide helpful health information to the general public and is not to be used in place of any medical, health, psychological, or any other kind of personal professional services. The information herein does not cover all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects, or interactions of the medicines mentioned, nor is the information intended as medical advice for individual problems or for making an evaluation as to the risks and benefits of taking a particular medication. The dose, method of administration and contraindications for any administered medication should be confirmed before use.UPMC specifically disclaims all responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, which is incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any medication mentioned herein.