Search Knowledgebase



Generic NameBrand Name
cytarabine, cytosine arabinosideCytarabine, Cytosar, DepoCyt

Cytarabine is given intravenously. Sometimes it is given as a shot under the skin or directly into the spinal fluid. It can be given in a low, average, or high dose.

How It Works

Cytarabine is classified as an antimetabolite. It kills cancer cells by interfering with the way they multiply.

Why It Is Used

Cytarabine is used to treat acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). It is sometimes used to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and some types of brain tumours.

How Well It Works

Cytarabine is an effective anti-tumour drug. But the type and extent of a cancer determines how well this drug slows or stops the growth of cancer cells in the body.

Cytarabine is often combined with other drugs.

Side Effects

Cytarabine is often given with another medicine called dexamethasone. This is done to prevent a possibly fatal side effect called chemical arachnoiditis. This causes symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, headache, and fever. Your doctor will watch you closely when you are given cytarabine.

Other side effects that are common with cytarabine include:

  • Decreased white blood cell counts (leukopenia) and red blood cell counts (anemia).
  • Decreased platelet counts (thrombocytopenia), which may lead to bleeding in the digestive tract causing tarry stools. It may also cause bleeding under the skin, in the urine, or other places in the body.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
  • Headaches or seizures.
  • Hair loss. This is reversible, and hair will grow back when treatment ends.
  • Mouth sores (stomatitis).
  • Slurred speech and difficulty walking (ataxia).
  • Peripheral neuropathies, which may be irreversible and may be made worse by exercise. Symptoms include:
    • Numbness and tingling.
    • Unsteadiness when standing or walking.
    • Clumsiness of the hands and feet.
  • Cough and hoarseness.
  • Eye problems, such as blurred vision or the inability to see colours.
  • Kidney damage.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Cytarabine should be used only under the supervision of a medical oncologist or hematologist.

You may not be able to get pregnant or father a child after taking this drug. Discuss this with your doctor before starting treatment.

Cytarabine can cause birth defects. Do not use this medicine if you are pregnant or wish to become pregnant or father a child while you are taking it.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Brian Leber, MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology
Last Revised February 9, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.