Find out about the side effects of the chemotherapy drug hydroxycarbamide.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects so they can help you manage them. Your nurse will give you a contact number to ring if you have any questions or problems. If in doubt, call them.
The side effects may be different if you are having hydroxycarbamide with other cancer treatments.
Common side effects
Each of these effects happens in more than 1 in 10 people (10%). You might have one or more of them.
Signs of an infection include headaches, aching muscles, a cough, a sore throat, pain passing urine, or feeling cold and shivery.
Chemotherapy reduces the number of white blood cells in the blood. This increases your risk of infections. White blood cells help fight infections.
When the level is very low it is called neutropenia (pronounced new-troh-pee-nee-ah).
You have antibiotics if you develop an infection. You might have them as tablets or as injections into the bloodstream (intravenously). To have them into your bloodstream you need to go into hospital.
Chemotherapy makes the level of red blood cells fall (anaemia). Red blood cells contain haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body. When the level of red blood cells is low you have less oxygen going to your cells. This can make you breathless and look pale. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel breathless.
You have regular blood tests to check your red blood cell levels. You might need a blood transfusion if the level is very low. After a transfusion, you will be less breathless and less pale.
You can also feel tired and depressed when your blood count is low and feel better once it is back to normal. The levels can rise and fall during your treatment. So it can feel like you are on an emotional and physical roller coaster.
You might notice you:
- bruise more easily
- have nosebleeds
- have bleeding gums when you brush your teeth
This is due to a drop in the number of platelets that help clot your blood.
If your platelets get very low you may have lots of tiny red spots or bruises on your arms or legs called petechiae.
You'll have a platelet transfusion if your platelet count is very low. It is a drip of a clear fluid containing platelets. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes. The new platelets start to work right away.
You might get a high temperature and chills.
You might feel very tired during your treatment. It might take 6 months to a year for your energy levels to get back to normal after the treatment ends. A low red blood cell count will also make you feel tired.
You can do things to help yourself, including some gentle exercise. It’s important not to push yourself too hard. Try to eat a well balanced diet.
Talk to your doctor or nurse if you are finding the tiredness difficult to manage.
Feeling or being sick can start a few hours after treatment and last for a few days. Anti sickness injections and tablets can control it. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel sick. You might need to try different anti sickness medicines to find one that works.
- Avoid eating or preparing food when you feel sick.
- Avoid foods that are fried, fatty, or have a strong smell.
- Drink plenty of liquid to stop you from getting dehydrated.
- Relaxation techniques help control sickness for some people.
- Ginger can help – try it as crystallised stem ginger, ginger tea or ginger ale.
- Fizzy drinks help some people when they’re feeling sick.
Constipation is easier to sort out if you treat it early. Drink plenty of fluids and eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables as you can. Try to take gentle exercise, such as walking.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you are constipated for more than 3 days. They can prescribe a laxative.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have diarrhoea. They can prescribe medicine to help you.
Drink at least 2.5 litres of fluid a day. This helps to keep you hydrated.
Ask your nurse about soothing creams to apply around your back passage (rectum). The skin in that area can get very sore and even break if you have severe diarrhoea.
You might lose your appetite for various reasons when you are having cancer treatment. Sickness, taste changes or tiredness can all put you off food and drinks.
- Eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day can be easier to manage.
- Ask your doctor or nurse to recommend high calorie drinks to sip between treatments, if you are worried about losing weight.
- You can make up calories between treatments for the days when you really don’t feel like eating.
- Drink plenty of fluids even if you can't eat.
- Don't fill your stomach with a large amount of liquid before eating.
- Try to eat high calorie foods to keep your weight up.
Your mouth might get sore. You will have mouth washes to keep your mouth healthy.
You can have painkillers to reduce the soreness. Take them half an hour before meals to make eating easier.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have this.
A rash can also be itchy. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have a skin rash. They can prescribe medicine to stop the itching and soothe your skin.
You might have some pain when passing urine. Drink plenty of fluids and tell your doctor or nurse.
High levels of uric acid in your blood can lead to a build up of crystals in body tissues and kidneys. This can cause kidney changes and swollen or inflamed joints (gout). Tell your doctor if you have pain and swelling in your joints.
You have regular blood tests to check your levels of uric acid. You might have medicines to control the levels.
Drinking plenty of fluids helps to flush out the excess uric acid.
You could lose all your hair. This includes your eyelashes, eyebrows, underarm, leg and sometimes pubic hair. It usually starts gradually within 2 to 3 weeks after treatment begins.
Your hair will grow back once your chemotherapy treatment has finished. This can take several months and your hair is likely to be softer. It can also grow back a different colour or be curlier than before.
- Ask about getting a wig before you start treatment so you can match the colour and texture of your real hair.
- You could choose a wig for a whole new look.
- Think about having your hair cut short before your treatment starts.
- Some people shave their hair off completely so they don't have to cope with their hair falling out.
- Wear a hairnet at night so you won't wake up with hair all over your pillow.
Contact your doctor or pharmacist if you have indigestion or heartburn. They can prescribe medicines to help.
This drug can cause inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). Tell your doctor straight away if you have sudden and severe pain in your tummy (abdomen).
Women might stop having periods (amenorrhoea) but this may be temporary.
Occasional side effects
Each of these effects happens in more than 1 in 100 people (1%). You might have one or more of them.
Numbness or tingling in fingers and toes can make it difficult to do fiddly things such as doing up buttons. This starts within a few days or weeks and can last for a few months. Rarely, the numbness may be permanent.
- Keep your hands and feet warm.
- Wear well fitting, protective shoes.
- Take care when using hot water as you may not be able to feel how hot it is and could burn yourself.
- Use oven gloves when cooking and protective gloves when gardening.
- Moisturise your skin at least a couple of times a day.
- Take care when cutting your nails.
This can be caused by a build up of fibrous tissue (pulmonary fibrosis). Tell your doctor if you get a cough or breathless during or after your treatment.
Let your doctor or nurse know if you have headaches. They can give you painkillers. Don’t drive or operate heavy machinery if you feel dizzy.
Confusion, sleepiness or extreme lack of energy (lethargy) and hallucinations can be a possible side effect of this treatment. If you have any of these, it is important to tell your doctor or nurse straight away.
You have an increased risk of developing leukaemia or a skin cancer if you take hydroxycarbamide for a long time. Don’t sit out in the sun and remember to cover up or use sun block on exposed skin. Your doctor will check your skin regularly
Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) may be picked up on blood tests before symptoms develop. Symptoms include:
- a high temperature (fever)
- joint and muscle pain
- feeling more tired than usual
- pain in the tummy (abdomen)
- dark urine
- pale, grey coloured poo
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
Rare side effects
Each of these effects happens in fewer than 1 in 100 people (1%). You might have one or more of them.
You might develop painful leg ulcers. These will go away slowly once the treatment ends.
A small number of people have an allergic reaction while having this treatment.
Tell your doctor or nurse immediately if you have any of these symptoms:
- a rash
- shortness of breath
- redness or swelling of the face
- feeling hot
- a sudden need to pass urine
More information about this treatment
We haven't listed all the very rare side effects of this treatment. For further information see the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.
You can report any side effect you have that isn’t listed here to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.