After an allogeneic transplant, which uses cells from a family member, unrelated donor, or umbilical cord blood unit, patients may need medications to treat graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). GVHD is a potentially serious disease, but there are several options for treatment. These treatments work well for many patients. How long a patient may need to be on these treatments can vary from weeks to months. If you are diagnosed with GVHD, your doctor will develop a treatment plan for you and help you to manage side effects.
Finding GVHD early
If GVHD appears, it is important to begin treatment as early as possible for the best results. Contact your doctor immediately if you think you have any signs or symptoms of GVHD. No question or concern is too small. Your doctor needs to know of any changes in your health.
The main treatment for GVHD is to give medications that weaken the new donor immune system that you received during transplant. These medications are commonly called immunosuppressants. Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully when taking these medications. Do not stop the medications without letting your doctor know. If you cannot take them for any reason, inform your doctor. If you cannot swallow your medications, you may need to take them by vein (directly into your bloodstream) temporarily.
Side effects of immunosuppressants
The medications used to treat GVHD work by weakening the immune system. This means that the treatment also increases the risk of infections. Immunosuppressants vary greatly in their side effects, but some, especially steroids, can affect the way you look and feel.
Talk with your doctor about any side effects you experience. Knowing all of your symptoms will help your doctor find the lowest dose of medicine to control the GVHD and limit the side effects. These side effects will improve or go away when you are done with your treatment. Follow your doctor’s instructions when taking medications prescribed to you. If you have concerns or are experiencing side effects, talk to your health care team.
Everett has been managing chronic GVHD of the skin for the past 10 years. While his GVHD has not been severe, it’s certainly been an ongoing challenge. He experienced a defining moment many years ago with his doctor. “After a frustrating episode with my GVHD, I asked if she could just fix it and she said, ‘No. You have this.’ That’s when I really understood that this is something I would have to manage for life.”
Read more about GVHD of the skin and other patient stories.