What are Cytotoxic Drugs?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Mecomber
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 23 January 2020
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Cytotoxic drugs are powerful medications that belong to the group of antineoplastic drugs for the treatment of cancerous tumors. "Cyto" means "cell" and "toxic" means "damaging" or "deadly." These drugs seek out and damage the cells in the body that grow quickly, such as cancer cells. Generic names for some common cytotoxic drugs include azathioprine, cyclophosphamide and methotrexate. These drugs might be given as pills or intravenously as part of a chemotherapy regimen for cancer treatment, to treat neoplastic disorders or for severe arthritis.

Cytotoxins are commonly administered with immunosuppressive drugs to reduce the need for harmful steroidal treatment and to prevent cancer cell replication. Cytotoxic drugs also seek out other rapidly growing cells in the body, such as hair cells, gonad cells and blood cells. Side effects of these drugs might include hair loss, nausea, vomiting, inflammation of the mucous membranes and bleeding. Despite the unpleasant side effects of cytotoxic drugs, a patient and his or her physician might choose cytotoxic drugs as the best recourse for cancer therapy.

The development of cancer therapy began after World War II with the use of nitrogen mustards. Modern research has led to an explosion of helpful antineoplastic drugs that have more tolerable side effects. Administered in the early stages, cytotoxic drugs might be effective against Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, testicular cancer, breast cancer and leukemia. Early detection is crucial; cytotoxic drugs are rarely effective after a tumor has metastasized.


These drugs are also known for their anti-inflammation properties, and they are sometimes administered for the treatment of arthritis and other joint diseases, lupus, Wegener's granulomatosis and vasculitis. Methotrexate is used in low doses for treating rheumatoid arthritis. Cytotoxic drugs work slowly in the body, and patients might not notice the effects for several weeks.

These drugs are administered by oncologists, and patients are closely monitored for adverse reaction. Cytotoxic drugs are considered hazardous carcinogenic compounds because of their ability to damage healthy cells. Medical professionals must exercise safe handling procedures when administering these cancer drugs.


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