Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a common side effect of an allogeneic bone marrow transplant. An allogeneic transplant uses blood cells from a family member, unrelated donor or cord blood unit. GVHD can affect many different parts of the body including the skin, eyes, mouth, stomach, and intestines.
GVHD occurs because of differences between the cells of your body and the donated cells. Your new immune system from the donor might see your body's cells as different and attack them.
There are two types of GVHD:
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- Acute GVHD: Develops in the first 100 days or so after transplant but can occur later. This primarily affects the skin, stomach, intestines, and liver.
- Chronic GVHD: Usually develops 3-6 months after transplant, but signs can appear earlier or later. If you have had or currently have acute GVHD, you are more likely to have chronic GVHD.
The severity of acute and chronic GVHD can range from mild to life-threatening.
Doctors often see mild GVHD as a good thing after an allogeneic transplant when the transplant was done for a blood cancer. It is a sign that the donor’s immune system is working to destroy any remaining cancer cells. Patients who experience some GVHD have a lower risk of the cancer returning after transplant than patients who do not develop GVHD. If the transplant was to treat a disease other than cancer disease, like aplastic anemia, then the doctor may want to treat even mild GVHD.
Being informed about GVHD can help with a smoother recovery after transplant.