A to Z: Graft Versus Host Disease

A to Z: Graft Versus Host Disease

May also be called: GVHD; Acute GVHD; Chronic GVHD

Graft versus host disease, or GVHD, is a complication of stem cell transplants in which white blood cells from the transplanted tissue (graft) attack the transplant recipient’s body (host).

More to Know

Stem cell transplants (sometimes called bone marrow transplants) are done to treat a variety of diseases, including many types of cancers, blood disorders, immune system diseases, and bone marrow syndromes.

In a stem cell transplant, a donor gives cells (also called tissue) to someone who is sick (the transplant recipient). Sometimes, after a stem cell transplant, the white blood cells in the transplanted tissue see the transplant recipient as “foreign” and attack healthy tissue.

Symptoms of GVHD can range from abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth to muscle weakness, fatigue, and skin rashes.

GVHD can be acute (usually happening within the first 3 months after a transplant) or chronic (happening later and possibly lasting for the rest of the recipient’s life). In severe cases, GVHD can damage the liver, lungs, or other organs and can become life threatening.

The closer the match between the transplant recipient and the tissue donor, the less risk there is of GVHD. That’s why doctors try to match people who need stem cell transplants with identical twins or other close relatives.

People who receive transplants usually take drugs to suppress the body’s immune system. This can help prevent GVHD or reduce the severity of any symptoms.

Keep in Mind

Many cases of GVHD are treated successfully. But that doesn’t guarantee that the transplanted tissue will cure the original disease. The long-term outlook for someone with GVHD depends on how severe that disease is. Transplant success is more likely when the received tissue is donated by someone whose cells are a close match.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.