What are the Side Effects of a Stem Cell Transplant?

June 12, 2019

Medically reviewed by Brett E. Glotzbecker, MD

stem cell transplant is an infusion of healthy stem cells. Stem cells are located within the bone marrow and are the cells from which all other blood cells and the immune system are created.

There are several side effects that patients may experience as they undergo stem cell transplantation. Here are the side effects that may occur during the conditioning process, which prepares your immune system for the stem cell transplant, as well as how you may feel during and immediately after the infusion of new stem cells.

Conditioning

To prepare for a stem cell transplant, you will go through conditioning treatment, which may include chemotherapy and/or radiation. Side effects of conditioning may include mouth sores, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, dry mouth, hair loss, rashes and breathing problems.

Stem Cell Infusion

After conditioning comes the actual stem cell infusion, when you will receive your new stem cells. The most common side effects during stem cell infusion are fevers, headaches, chills, flushing, and nausea at the end of the infusion — which can occur up to one hour after the stem cell infusion is completed. In some cases, intravenous fluids or medication can be given to help prevent or reduce these effects.

Engraftment

The phase after the stem cell infusion is called engraftment, when the transplanted stem cells begin to make new blood components — including red blood cells, platelets, and other components of the immune system — within your body. From the time you receive stem cells until engraftment, you may experience side effects including nausea, and trouble sleeping. You may also develop skin rashes, as well as mucositis, which makes it difficult to eat or drink. Diarrhea and lack of appetite are also common. Most patients are very tired and get warn out with very little activity while their counts are low. Some of these side effects may persist for a period of time even after you return home.

Stem cells.
Stem cells.

Post-Transplant

The most common side effects after transplant are fatigue, lack of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Many patients also continue to deal with hair loss, skin rash, swelling, weight loss or gain, fatigue, change in taste/appetite, or decrease in sexual desire. For allogeneic transplant patients, it is important to be aware of possible signs of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which may include skin rashes or skin changes, yellowing of the skin or eyes, excessive dryness or pain in the mouth, joint pain, or eye dryness.

It is important to share information about the side effects that you experience with your care team. With time, many of these side effects subside as your immune system recovers.

Learn more about stem cell transplants from the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.