A stem cell transplant poses many risks of complications, some potentially fatal. The risk can depend on many factors, including the type of disease or condition, the type of transplant, and the age and health of the person. Although some people experience few problems with a transplant, others may develop complications that may require treatment or hospitalization. Some complications could even be life-threatening.
Complications that can arise with a stem cell transplant include:
- Graft-versus-host disease (allogeneic transplant only)
- Stem cell (graft) failure
- Organ damage
- New cancers
Your doctor can explain your risk of complications from a stem cell transplant. Together you can weigh the risks and benefits to decide whether a stem cell transplant is right for you.
Graft-versus-host disease: A potential risk when stem cells come from donors
If you receive a transplant that uses stem cells from a donor (allogeneic stem cell transplant), you may be at risk of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). This disease happens when the donor stem cells that make up your new immune system see your body's tissues and organs as something foreign and attack them.
GVHD may happen at any time after your transplant. However, it's more common after your marrow has started to make healthy cells. Many people who have an allogeneic stem cell transplant get GVHD at some point. The risk of GVHD is a bit greater with unrelated donors, but it can happen to anyone who gets a stem cell transplant from a donor.
There are two kinds of GVHD: acute and chronic. Acute GVHD usually happens earlier, during the first months after your transplant. It typically affects your skin, digestive tract or liver. Chronic GVHD typically develops later and can affect many organs.
GVHD signs and symptoms include:
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- Joint or muscle pain
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent cough
- Vision changes, such as dry eyes
- Skin changes, including scarring under the skin
- Yellow tint to your skin or the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- Dry mouth
- Mouth sores
- Abdominal pain
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- Barbara Woodward Lips Patient Education Center. Autologous blood and marrow transplant (BMT). Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2009.
- Stem cell transplant (peripheral blood, bone marrow, and cord blood transplants). American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/TreatmentTypes/BoneMarrowandPeripheralBloodStemCellTransplant/index. Accessed June 9, 2014.
- Hogan WJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. June 15, 2014.