Chemo Side Effects and How They’re Treated

It’s true that chemotherapy drugs can cause side effects, but they don’t have to take over your life.

If you're about to start your cancer treatment, find out what steps you can take to feel better if you end up having some of these side effects.


This is common during chemotherapy. Some people feel just a little low in energy, while others feel wiped out.

Depending on how tired you are, your doctor might give you medicines that treat other side effects that can make you feel tired, like depression, pain, and anemia. Studies have shown these drugs can boost energy in people with cancer.

Aside from taking medicines, you can practice these habits to fight fatigue:

  • Don't try to do everything at once or by yourself. If your family or friends ask what they can do for you, get their help with grocery shopping, cooking, or other chores.
  • Adjust your work schedule if you need to.
  • Eat a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
  • Exercise, even if it's just a little bit every day.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Take short naps if you need to, but not too close to bedtime.

Nausea and Vomiting

These can happen before, during, or after treatment. The good news is that a lot of drugs can ease queasiness. Your doctor will probably recommend specific ones based on the kind of chemotherapy you’re getting. You might need to try a few different nausea medicines before you find the right one for you. Or you might need to take more than one.

Other tips:

  • Eat several small meals throughout the day rather than three big ones.
  • Drink liquids an hour before you eat rather than during the meal.
  • Sip clear liquids all day long.
  • Plan your eating around your chemo. For some people, a snack right before a session helps keep nausea away. Others do better on an empty stomach.

Hair Loss

Chemotherapy can make you lose hair not just on top of your head but in other places, like your eyebrows and eyelashes.


A tight-fitting cap with a cool gel, called a cooling cap, can reduce hair loss for some people. It makes the blood vessels in your scalp smaller so less of the chemo medicine reaches your hair follicles. Ask your doctor if it might help you.

You also can handle hair loss with a few other simple habits:

  • Treat your hair and your scalp gently. That means mild shampoos, soft brushes, and no electric rollers, curling irons, dyes, or perms.
  • Use moisturizing shampoo, conditioner, and cream on your hair before it falls out and later on your scalp. This will help with dryness and itching.
  • Explore wigs, scarves, turbans, or hats to mask your hair loss. You might even want to shave your head before you start treatment.


You might get this blood condition during chemo, because some drugs can kill cells that form red blood cells in the bone marrow. It can also be a major cause of fatigue during treatment.

Your doctor might prescribe iron supplements, vitamin B12, or folic acid supplements. He might tell you to try a few treatments at once. If your anemia is severe, you might need a blood transfusion. In some cases, your doctor might prescribe drugs that prompt your body to make more red blood cells.

Foods rich in iron, such as spinach, red meat, and beans, might help boost your energy, too.

Bleeding, Bruising, and Infection

Chemotherapy kills white blood cells, which fight germs, and platelets, which help your blood clot. As a result, you have a higher risk of infections, bleeding, and bruising (even if you haven't bumped yourself).

Blood and platelet transfusions can help. So can injections of drugs that help your body make more blood cells.

To prevent bleeding and bruising:

  • Use an electric shaver instead of a razor.
  • If you need to blow your nose, do it gently.
  • Don't play rough sports.
  • Don't use dental floss or toothpicks, which can make your gums bleed.

To avoid infections:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Avoid people who are sick or who have just had vaccines for chickenpox, polio, or measles.
  • Don't get any vaccines before talking with your doctor first.
  • Be careful around pets and other animals.


Constipation and Diarrhea

Try anti-diarrheal medicines or laxatives and stool softeners for constipation. You can get them over the counter or by prescription, but always talk to your doctor before you take them.

Other habits can also keep bathroom troubles at bay. For constipation, try high-fiber foods, exercise, and drinking lots of fluid. For diarrhea, low-fiber foods like white rice, oatmeal, and skinless chicken may help.

Memory Changes

Some people getting chemo have trouble remembering things and concentrating. It’s called "chemo brain" or "chemo fog." To keep yourself on track, try a few of these habits:

  • Stick to a routine.
  • Take notes and use a planner.
  • Cut down on distractions at work and elsewhere.
  • Use a pill box to keep track of your medications.

Mouth and Throat Sores

Painful sores can make it hard to eat, and they can get infected.

Ask your doctor about pain medicines and ointments. If you start having dry mouth, he might recommend treatments to help you make more saliva.

Other tips:

  • Visit your dentist 2 weeks before you start chemo to get any dental work done.
  • Brush your teeth and tongue after every meal and before bed with a soft toothbrush or cotton swabs.
  • Suck on ice chips right before or during a session.

Nerve Changes

If you feel numbness, tingling, weakness, burning, a pins-and-needles sensation, or pain in your hands and feet, it might mean your chemo drugs have damaged some nerves.

Your doctor might give you a few different medicines to help. You can also try other tips:

  • Always wear shoes to protect your feet.
  • Wear gloves when you’re cooking or working outside.
  • Use bath mats in the shower.
  • Use a cane to balance yourself.

When to Call Your Doctor

Some side effects need immediate medical help. Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • A temperature over 100.4 degrees
  • Bleeding or bruises when you didn’t bump anything
  • A rash or allergic reaction, like swelling or trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Intense chills
  • Pain you can’t explain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Blood in the toilet after you use the bathroom
  • Diarrhea or vomiting that won’t go away
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 22, 2018



Ted Gansler, MD, director of medical content, American Cancer Society.

American Cancer Society: "A Guide to Chemotherapy," "Anemia in People With Cancer," "Peripheral Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy."

City of Hope: "Chemo brain due to cancer treatment: Who's at risk? What can be done?"

Hershman, D. Journal of Clinical Oncology, published online April 14, 2014.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center: "Cancer and Cognitive Functioning: Strategies for Improvement."

National Cancer Institute: "Fatigue (PDQ)," "Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Anemia," "Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Bleeding Problems," "Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects: Fatigue," "Support For People With Cancer: Chemotherapy and You."

University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center: "Chemobrain," "Doctor, Doctor: Focus on Chemotherapy."

UpToDate: "Prevention and treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting."

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