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Cytarabine (Ara-C, Cytosar-U)

Article Translations: (Spanish)

How does this medicine work?

Cytarabine (sye-tare-a-bean) is a chemotherapy medicine that destroys cancer cells in all phases of cell life.

How is it given?

Cytarabine is given as an injection into a vein (IV), under the skin (Sub-Q), or into the spinal fluid (intrathecal or IT). It is given in the hospital, clinic, or home.

What are the side effects?

Intrathecal (IT) cytarabine may cause:


  • nausea
  • vomiting


  • headache


  • fever
  • irritation of the lower back
  • stiff neck
  • seizures
  • learning disability

IV cytarabine may be given in high doses or standard doses. High doses have more severe side effects. IV cytarabine may cause:


  • low blood counts


  • nausea and vomiting
  • peeling of the skin on hands and feet (with high dose)
  • conjunctivitis (redness and irritation of the white part of the eye) (with high dose)


  • fever
  • flu-like symptoms (achy, tired)
  • diarrhea


  • confusion
  • seizures
  • walking imbalance
  • slurred speech
  • headache
  • liver damage

When should I call the doctor?

  • fever or chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • bleeding or unusual bruising
  • skin rash or irritation
  • continued vomiting or diarrhea
  • mouth sores
  • hoarseness
  • seizures
  • confusion
  • changes in speech
  • changes in balance
  • back pain
  • signs of allergic reaction:
    • sudden rash or hives
    • itching
    • wheezing
    • trouble breathing - call 911

What else do I need to know?

All caregivers should wear gloves when handling urine, stool, and vomit while your child is receiving the chemotherapy and for 48 hours afterward. Urine, stool, and vomit can be safely disposed of in septic tanks and the sewer system.

Any clothing or bed linens that are contaminated with urine, stool, or vomit should be washed separately from other laundry in hot water and detergent. Anyone handling the contaminated laundry should wear gloves.

Blood samples may be needed to check the effects of the medicine. Blood counts are lowest at 1 to 2 weeks after the medicine is given and may be prolonged.

Fever may occur when cytarabine is given and within 24 hours afterward. Eye drops may ease conjunctivitis and are given with high doses of cytarabine.

Children have more problems with vomiting after intrathecal cytarabine than after intrathecal methotrexate. Give the anti-nausea medicines on the schedule that is given to you.

Good mouth care will help prevent mouth sores.

Prevent sunburn. During treatment and for one year after, your child should wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher), a hat, and protective clothing when outdoors. Avoid extensive exposure to sunlight.

You and your child should know the names of all the medicines he or she is taking. Share this information with anyone involved in your child's care.

Check with the doctor, nurse practitioner, or pharmacist before giving any other prescription or non-prescription medicines, herbs, or vitamins.


This is not specific to your child but provides general information. If you have any questions, please call the oncology clinic or pharmacy.

Last reviewed by Children's pharmacy 8/2015

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This page is not specific to your child, but provides general information on the topic above. If you have any questions, please call your clinic. For more reading material about this and other health topics, please call or visit Children's Minnesota Family Resource Center library, or visit

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