Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a complication that can occur after a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. With GVHD, the newly transplanted donor cells attack the transplant recipient's body.
GVHD may occur after a bone marrow or stem cell transplant in which someone receives bone marrow tissue or cells from a donor. This type of transplant is called allogeneic. The new, transplanted cells regard the recipient's body as foreign. When this happens, the newly transplanted cells attack the recipient's body.
GVHD does not occur when someone receives his or her own cells during a transplant. This type of transplant is called autologous.
Before a transplant, tissue and cells from possible donors are checked to see how closely they match the person having the transplant. GVHD is less likely to occur, or symptoms will be milder, when the match is close. The chance of GVHD is:
- Around 30 to 40% when the donor and recipient are related
- Around 60 to 80% when the donor and recipient are not related
There are two types of GVHD: acute and chronic. Symptoms in both acute and chronic GVHD range from mild to severe.
Acute GVHD usually happens within the first 6 months after a transplant. Common acute symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain or cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Jaundice (yellow coloring of the skin or eyes) or other liver problems
- Skin rash, itching, redness on areas of the skin
Chronic GVHD usually starts more than 3 months after a transplant, and can last a lifetime. Chronic symptoms may include:
- Dry eyes or vision changes
- Dry mouth, white patches inside the mouth, and sensitivity to spicy foods
- Fatigue, muscle weakness, and chronic pain
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Skin rash with raised, discolored areas, as well as skin tightening or thickening
- Shortness of breath
- Vaginal dryness
- Weight loss
Exams and Tests
Several lab and imaging tests can be done to diagnose and monitor problems caused by GVHD.
A biopsy of the skin, mucus membranes in the mouth, or other parts of the body may help confirm the diagnosis.
After a transplant, the recipient usually takes drugs that suppress the immune system. This helps reduce the chances (or severity) of GVHD.
A number of medicines and other treatments are often started after the transplant. You will continue taking the medicines until your health care provider thinks the risk of GVHD is low. Many of these medicines have side effects, including kidney and liver damage. You will have tests to watch for these problems on a regular basis.
Treatment of chronic GVHD includes prednisone (a steroid), or the same drugs that suppress the immune system.
How well a person does depends on the severity of GVHD. The outlook is better for patients who receive closely matched bone marrow tissue and cells.
Some cases of GVHD can damage the liver, lungs, digestive tract, or other body organs. Patients may also be at risk for severe infections.
However many cases, acute or chronic, can be treated successfully.
Successful treatment of GVHD does not guarantee that the transplant itself will succeed in treating the original disease.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
If you have had a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, call your health care provider right away if you develop any symptoms of GVHD or other unusual symptoms.
Chinen J, Buckley RH. Transplantation immunology: solid organ and bone marrow. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;125:S324-35. PMID: 20176267 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20176267.
Sykes M. Transplantation immunology. In Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 48.
Update Date 5/29/2014
Updated by: Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.