Common Chemo Side Effects
Knowing what to expect can help you better deal with the potential side effects of chemotherapy. Start be reviewing our list below and then talk to your healthcare provider about your individual concerns:
- Nausea, vomiting and bowel problems: Many of today’s chemo drugs don’t even cause severe stomach upsets—and if they do, meds called antiemetics help counter nausea and vomiting for most people. To reduce your risk of diarrhea, avoid caffeine, high-fiber foods and milk products. If your chemo or pain meds trigger constipation, try doing light exercise and drinking more fluids. And remember that diarrhea should be reported promptly to your doctor (avoid over-the-counter remedies).
- Fatigue: More than simple tiredness, fatigue is one of chemo’s most common side effects. The good news: Fatigue will disappear when your treatments are over. Until then, get plenty of rest every night, and treat yourself to naps whenever you need them.
- Hair loss: Not all chemo drugs cause hair loss. Still, hair loss—called alopecia—can be heartbreaking. Remember this: Your hair will grow back, perhaps even fuller! Ask whether to anticipate hair loss and when it will happen. In doing so, you can prepare yourself for the eventuality, or take charge by getting a preemptive buzz cut!
- Chemo brain: Chemo brain is a vague term, but it refers to an all-too-real condition. Patients describe it as a mental fog or cloudiness. If brain fog drags on after your treatments end, talk to your doctor, especially if you have received radiation to the brain.
- Lowered white blood cell counts: Chemo affects your bone marrow’s ability to produce white blood cells—a condition called neutropenia. Since white blood cells fight off infections, it’s vital that they remain in the normal range. Fortunately, there are meds called colony-stimulating factors that can ramp up your body’s white blood cell levels.
- Infections: While any chemo patient can develop neutropenia, some are at greater risk than others. For example, adults over age 64, and people with other medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, are at heightened risk. So watch for telltale signs, including a fever above 100.5°, chills, a sore throat, diarrhea, or pain or burning when you urinate. Contact your doctor immediately if any of these occur.
- Anemia: Chemo can lower your red blood cell count, causing fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath. There are ways to boost your red blood cell count; talk to your doctor if you suspect a problem.
- Peripheral neuropathy: Some chemo can damage nerves in your hands and feet, leading to peripheral neuropathy. Symptoms include pain, tingling, burning, numbness and balance problems. Your doctor may need to switch you to a lower dose or postpone treatment until your symptoms ease.
If you develop any of these symptoms, contact your doctor right away:
- A fever above 100.5°F, chills, a sore throat, or pain or burning when you urinate
- Diarrhea or uncontrolled vomiting
- New pain, especially in your back
- Abnormal bleeding or bruising