Capecitabine (Xeloda)

Also called

Xeloda

What is it?

Capecitabine is a type of chemotherapy drug you might have it on its own or with other types of chemotherapy drugs.

It is a treatment for several types of cancer.

How do you have it?

It is a tablet you take twice a day morning and evening.

Side effects

It can cause side effects which vary from person to person.

Some side effects are more serious than others – contact your advice line if you have severe side effects, if they aren’t getting better or they are getting worse.

What is capecitabine?

Capecitabine is a type of chemotherapy. It is used as a treatment for different types of cancer, including bowel cancer.

You might have capecitabine on its own or with other chemotherapy drugs. You might also have it with radiotherapy.

How does capecitabine work?

Capecitabine is a type of chemotherapy called an anti metabolite. The body changes capecitabine into a common chemotherapy drug called fluorouracil. It stops cells making and repairing DNA   Open a glossary itemCancer cells need to make and repair DNA so they can grow and multiply.

How do you have capecitabine?

Capecitabine comes as a tablet that you swallow whole, with plenty of water and within 30 minutes of finishing a meal. You take it twice a day, morning and evening.

You might have two different strengths of tablets to make up the correct dose.

You must take tablets according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Speak to your pharmacist if you have problems swallowing the tablets.

Whether you have a full or an empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, no more or less.

Talk to your specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.

How often do you have capecitabine?

You might have capecitabine as a course of several cycles of treatment Open a glossary item. Each cycle is often over 3 weeks, but this depends on the type of cancer you have.

For example, you may take capecitabine every day for 2 weeks. Then have a week with no treatment. You then start the next cycle. Or you may take capecitabine every day for a few months.

Your doctor will tell you:

  • what dose of capecitabine you need to take
  • when to take it
  • how long to take it for

Tests

You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.

Before starting treatment with capecitabine you have a blood test to check levels of an enzyme called dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase (DPD). A low DPD level might mean you are more likely to have severe side effects from these drugs. So you may start treatment with a lower amount (dose) of the drug or have a different treatment. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about this.

What are the side effects of capecitabine?

How often and how severe the side effects are can vary from person to person. They also depend on what other treatment you are having. For example, your side effects could be worse if you are also having other drugs or radiotherapy.

When to contact your team

Your doctor or nurse will go through the possible side effects. They will monitor you closely during treatment and check how you are at your appointments. Contact your advice line as soon as possible if:

  • you have severe side effects
  • your side effects aren’t getting any better
  • your side effects are getting worse

Early treatment can help manage side effects better. 

Contact your advice line, doctor or nurse immediately if you have signs of infection, such as a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C, or if you develop a severe skin reaction. Signs of a severe skin reaction include peeling or blistering of the skin.

We haven't listed all the side effects here. Remember it is very unlikely that you will have all of these side effects, but you might have some of them at the same time.

Common side effects

These side effects happen in more than 10 in 100 people (10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) during and after treatment

Tiredness and weakness (fatigue) can happen during and after treatment - doing gentle exercises each day can keep your energy up. Don't push yourself, rest when you start to feel tired and ask others for help.

Loss of appetite

You might lose your appetite for various reasons when you are having cancer treatment. Sickness, taste changes or tiredness can put you off food and drinks.

Less commonly you might lose weight.

Diarrhoea

Contact your advice line if you have diarrhoea, such as if you've had 4 or more loose watery poos (stools) in 24 hours. Or if you can't drink to replace the lost fluid. Or if it carries on for more than 3 days.

Your doctor may give you anti diarrhoea medicine to take home with you after treatment. Eat less fibre, avoid raw fruits, fruit juice, cereals and vegetables, and drink plenty to replace the fluid lost.

Mouth sores and ulcers

Mouth sores and ulcers can be painful. It helps to keep your mouth and teeth clean, drink plenty of fluids, avoid acidic foods such as oranges, lemons and grapefruits, and chew gum to keep the mouth moist. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have ulcers.

Feeling or being sick

Feeling or being sick is usually well controlled with anti sickness medicines. Avoiding fatty or fried foods, eating small meals and snacks, drinking plenty of water, and relaxation techniques can all help.

It is important to take anti sickness medicines as prescribed even if you don’t feel sick. It is easier to prevent sickness rather than treating it once it has started.

Soreness, redness and peeling on palms and soles of feet

The skin on your hands and feet may become sore, red, or may peel. You may also have tingling, numbness, pain and dryness. This is called hand-foot syndrome or palmar plantar syndrome.

Moisturise your skin regularly. Your doctor or nurse will tell you what moisturiser to use.

Tummy (abdominal) pain and pain in other areas of the body 

You might get tummy pain or less commonly you may have pain in other parts of your body such as your joints, arms, legs and back.

Tell your treatment team if you have this. They can check the cause and give you medicine to help. 

Occasional side effects

These side effects happen in between 1 and 10 out of every 100 people (between 1 and 10%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • low levels of white blood cells in your blood which can increase your risk of getting an infection. Call your advice line straight away if you think you have an infection, such as a high temperature
  • low levels of red blood cells in your blood (anaemia) that can cause breathlessness and looking pale
  • difficulty pooing (constipation)
  • passing wind (flatulence)
  • indigestion, symptoms include heartburn, bloating or burping
  • headaches
  • dizziness, rarely it may feel like the area around you is spinning and you may lose your balance (vertigo)
  • eye problems, such as watery eyes and redness (conjunctivitis). Rarely you may have eyesight changes including double or blurred vision
  • hair loss or thinning that usually grows back once your chemotherapy treatment has finished
  • skin and nail problems such as skin rashes, dry skin, itching, changes in skin colour, and darkening or brittle nails
  • liver changes that are usually mild and unlikely to cause symptoms. It is very rare for your liver to stop working (liver failure) symptoms might include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • low levels of fluid in the body (dehydration)
  • feeling very low in mood (depression)
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • fluid build up in different parts of your body causing swelling
  • feeling generally unwell (malaise)
  • cough or shortness of breath. This could be a sign of infection or more rarely lung problems such as asthma or a collapsed lung (pneumothorax)
  • runny nose
  • dry mouth
  • nosebleeds, bleeding in the gut or rarely other areas of your body. This might be due to a drop in the number of platelets in the blood, which help your blood to clot
  • taste changes
  • blood clots in veins near the surface of your skin (thrombophlebitis) or more rarely in deep muscles (deep vein thrombosis, DVT). DVTs can be life threatening. Signs are pain, redness and swelling where the clot is. Feeling breathless can be a sign of a blood clot in the lung. Contact your advice line or doctor straight away if you have any of these symptoms
  • numbness and tingling sensation on the skin

Rare side effects

These side effects happen in fewer than 1 in 100 people (less than 1%). You might have one or more of them. They include:

  • heart problems such as changes to your heart rate or rhythm, angina or heart attack
  • an allergic reaction that can cause a rash, shortness of breath, redness or swelling of the face and dizziness
  • changes in blood sugar levels (diabetes)
  • high or low blood pressure
  • low levels of a mineral in the blood called potassium – you have regular blood tests to check for any changes
  • skin sensitivity to sunlight or previously treated areas of skin with radiation can become irritated and inflamed 
  • loss of interest in sex
  • confusion or memory changes 
  • changes to your balance
  • numbness or tingling in fingers and toes can make it difficult to do fiddly things such as doing up buttons
  • inflammation or blockage in the bowel
  • changes to how well your kidneys are working- you will have regular blood tests to check for this  
  • problems with passing urine such as going very often overnight or being unable to control when you pass urine 
  • flu-like symptoms such as a fever, chills and muscle aches
  • very rarely you may develop a severe skin reaction that may start as tender red patches which leads to peeling or blistering of the skin. You might also feel feverish and your eyes may be more sensitive to light. This is serious and could be life threatening
  • difficulty swallowing
  • panic attacks this can make you feel as though your heart is pounding, sweating, feeling weak and dizzy and having trouble breathing
  • fainting
  • lumps under the skin (lipoma)
  • high levels of a type of fat in your blood
  • hot flushes
  • cold limbs
  • muscle weakness and stiffness

Coping with side effects

We have more information about side effects and tips on how to cope with them.

What else do I need to know?

Other medicines, foods and drink

Cancer drugs can interact with some other medicines and herbal products. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies.

Lactose intolerance 

This drug contains lactose (milk sugar). If you have an intolerance to lactose, contact your doctor before taking this medicine.

Contraception and pregnancy

This treatment might harm a baby developing in the womb.

Women

It is important not to become pregnant while you're having treatment and for 6 months afterwards. Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment.

Men

It is important not to father a child while you’re having treatment and for 3 months afterwards. Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment.

Loss of fertility

It is not known whether this treatment affects fertility in people. Talk to your doctor before starting treatment if you think you may want to have a baby in the future.

Breastfeeding

Don’t breastfeed during this treatment and for 2 weeks after your final treatment. This is because the drug may come through into your breast milk.

Treatment for other conditions

Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.

Immunisations

Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for up to 12 months afterwards. The length of time depends on the treatment you are having. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how long you should avoid live vaccinations.

In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and one of the shingles vaccines called Zostavax.

You can have:

  • other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
  • the flu vaccine (as an injection)
  • the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine - talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the best time to have it in relation to your cancer treatment

Members of your household who are aged 5 years or over are also able to have the COVID-19 vaccine. This is to help lower your risk of getting COVID-19 while having cancer treatment and until your immune system Open a glossary item recovers from treatment.

Contact with others who have had immunisations - You can be in contact with other people who have had live vaccines as injections. Avoid close contact with people who have recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as the oral typhoid vaccine.

If your immune system is severely weakened, you should avoid contact with children who have had the flu vaccine as a nasal spray as this is a live vaccine. This is for 2 weeks following their vaccination.

Babies have the live rotavirus vaccine. The virus is in the baby’s poo for about 2 weeks and could make you ill if your immunity is low. Get someone else to change their nappies during this time if you can. If this isn't possible, wash your hands well after changing their nappy.

More information about this treatment

For further information about this treatment go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.

You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.

Related links