GvHD symptoms

The symptoms depend on the type of graft versus host disease (GvHD) you have and which parts of your body it affects.

Symptoms of acute GvHD

Acute GvHD generally happens within the first 100 days after you have a stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant from another person. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if the symptoms are caused by GvHD or are other side effects from your transplant.

Acute GvHD mainly affects the skin, gut and liver but can affect almost any part of the body. The symptoms you have of GvHD depend on which part of the body is affected. 

This usually begins with a rash, often found on:

  • the palms of your hands
  • the soles of your feet
  • your ears
  • your shoulders 

This can spread to cover the whole body. It might be itchy and painful and feel like a sunburn. In some cases your skin might blister and peel if it gets worse.

Your doctor will arrange for you to have regular blood tests called liver function tests. These tests can pick up early changes in your liver before you get any symptoms.

Your skin and the whites of your eyes may look yellow if the GvHD carries on. This is called jaundice. It can also make your skin itchy. Your tummy (abdomen) may become swollen and painful if your liver becomes enlarged.

GvHD of the digestive system often starts with diarrhoea. This can be green and watery, and may look bitty. It sometimes contains mucus and blood. You might have cramping abdominal pain.

You might have indigestion, feel sick and lose your appetite if GvHD affects your stomach. 

You might also have a sore mouth. 

Other general symptoms of acute GvHD can include:

  • low red blood cells (anaemia)
  • low platelets (thrombocytopenia)
  • increased risk of infection
  • raised temperature

Symptoms of chronic GvHD

Chronic GvHD may be mild, moderate or severe. Symptoms can be similar to those of acute GvHD. Chronic GvHD mainly affects your skin and digestive system, including the liver.

It may also involve other organs such as your eyes, lung, tendons or genitals. For example the vagina or penis. You might be more at risk of infection as it can affect your immune system.

Chronic GvHD affects the body’s connective tissues. These are everywhere so it can spread throughout the body. Symptoms vary from person to person, depending on which part of the body affected.

Your skin may:

  • develop a rash
  • feel dry and tight
  • feel itchy
  • look darker in colour
  • thicken and feel bumpy

Chronic GvHD also affects your hair and nails. You may find that you lose hair and it turns grey. Your nails might become hard and brittle.

You can have diarrhoea that goes on for more than a few days (chronic diarrhoea).

Chronic GvHD can affect your mouth and food pipe (oesophagus) making it hard to swallow. 

You may find that your mouth is sore and dry. This is because GvHD affects the glands that make your saliva. You may be more likely to get fungal infections of the mouth (thrush) or cold sores. This can make it painful to swallow. Your mouth might get sore or irritated if you eat spicy or acidic foods.

GvHD can affect the lining of your stomach and bowel so you may not be absorbing the nutrients you need from your food. You might not feel like eating, which can lead to weight loss. You might:

  • feel bloated
  • develop heartburn
  • get stomach cramps

Chronic GvHD can cause damage and scarring of your liver (cirrhosis). This can stop your liver from working properly. 

GvHD can sometimes affect the glands that make tears so your eyes might become dry and painful. Sometimes your eyes feel like they’re burning, and it can be hard to tolerate bright light.

You might be short of breath and wheeze when you breathe. You might also have a persistent cough, and be more at risk of chest infections.

In women GvHD can cause inflammation of the vagina and vulva Open a glossary item and possible narrowing of the vagina. You might have dryness and burning and this can make it uncomfortable to have sex. 

In men the urethra Open a glossary item might narrow. It can be painful to pass urine and sex might be painful. 

GvHD can affect the connective tissues (fascia) and joints. For example, it can affect the tendons. These connect muscle to bone. You might have difficulty straightening or bending your arms and legs if GvHD affects your tendons. This is because the tendons can become inflamed and make your muscles shorten (contract).

Soft tissue GvhD can also affect the tummy and chest wall. The skin and soft tissue can harden causing joint stiffness or spasms.

Checking for symptoms

The doctors and nurses looking after you will keep a very close watch for any symptoms of GvHD. Once you are at home they will ask you to report any new symptoms.

They will also check you over each time you come to clinic. You will have some tests and treatment for GvHD if you need it.

Last reviewed: 
11 Jun 2020
Next review due: 
11 Jun 2023
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