Annals of Oncology 14 (Supplement 3): iii26–iii30, 2003
© 2003 European Society for Medical Oncology
Extravasation: a dreaded complication of chemotherapy
D. L. Schrijvers
Department of Medical Oncology, AZ Middelheim, Antwerp, Belgium
Most chemotherapeutic agents are given by intravenous adminis-
tration, although some drugs are available orally. When given
intravenously, these drugs cause few side-effects at the site of
injection. However, when they are injected or leak into the
surrounding tissues, a tissue reaction varying from irritation to
necrosis may arise.
In this article, a patient with extravasation is described and a
review of the literature is given.
A 69-year old woman was treated for a high-grade soft tissue
sarcoma of the leg by resection and radiotherapy. One year later,
she developed lymph node and lung metastases. Since her general
condition was excellent, a palliative chemotherapy with doxo-
rubicin was proposed. The patient agreed to the treatment and she
was admitted to the Department of Medical Oncology for her first
Doxorubicin at a dose of 75 mg/m2 was given by intravenous
injection. The nurse who had to administer the drug placed a but-
terfly needle in the right hand and injected the drug slowly. During
the injection, the patient did not complain of pain. After adminis-
tering the drug, the patient said she felt an excruciating pain in her
hand. The nurse removed the needle and called a physician. On
clinical examination, the woman had a slight redness of the right
hand without other signs. A local anti-inflammatory ointment was
applied to the hand and the patient was hospitalised.
The next day, she complained of pain and the hand was swollen
and red. A small ulceration had developed. The diagnosis of
extravasation was made and a local treatment with dimethyl-
sulfoxide (DMSO) was applied three times daily. The patient was
treated with analgesics. A surgeon was consulted who suggested
observation. After a week, necrosis of the skin developed with
exposure of the muscles and ligaments. The wound was treated
with sterile dressings. After 6 weeks a skin graft was placed over
A subcutaneous device was then put in place and doxorubicin
treatment continued. After two cycles, there was a partial response
and the patient was treated with six cycles of chemotherapy.
She sued the department for medical fault.
Extravasation is one of the most dreaded complications when
administering chemotherapy. It is defined either as the escape of a
chemotherapeutic agent from a vessel into the surrounding tissues
by leakage or as an involuntary injection of a drug into the tissues.
The frequency of extravasation in adults is considered to be between
0.1% and 6%.
The severity of tissue injury is dependent on the type and
concentration of the chemotherapeutic agent and the quantity
injected. Cytotoxic agents may be classified as irritants or vesi-
cants (Table 1).
Irritants are drugs that can cause an inflammatory reaction,
aching, swelling, pain or phlebitis at the injection site or along the
vein. They may cause sclerosis and hyperpigmentation along the
vein, burning, local warmth, discomfort, erythema or tenderness.
These symptoms are self-limiting and there are no long-term
Vesicants are drugs that may cause severe and lasting tissue
injury and necrosis. Symptoms may arise immediately after extra-
vasation or appear after several days or weeks. Patients may com-
plain of pain or local burning at the infusion site, mild erythema,
itching or swelling. Over time, the symptoms of erythema and
pain may increase and a discoloration and induration of the skin,
dry desquamation or blistering may develop. In case of a sig-
nificant extravasation, necrosis, eschar formation and ulceration
with involvement of underlying tissues may occur. The indolent
ulceration lacks granulation tissue formation and there is little
Prevention of extravasation
The most important approach to extravasation is prevention. Pre-
vention of extravasation takes into account several factors.
• In all departments where cytotoxic agents are given, written
guidelines for handling cytotoxic agents and procedures in case
of extravasation should be present. In addition to these guide-
lines, an extravasation kit, with all the necessary material and
drugs to treat extravasation, should be present . There should
also be a form to report the extravasation to the authorities (hos-
pital direction, legal department, nursing department).
• Persons responsible for administering cytotoxic drugs should
be informed and educated about the drugs and the problems they
may cause in case of extravasation and the procedures to follow
if this happens.
• A cytotoxic agent should not be administered in an extremity
if within the previous 48 h there was venopuncture above the
place of insertion of the catheter.
• For vesicant drugs, the placement of a subcutaneous device
before the start of chemotherapy is advisable; in case of
infusions of longer duration (e.g. more than 1-h infusions), the
placement of a subcutaneous device is obligatory.
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• Drugs should never be administered using a butterfly needle,
and even in case of a bolus injection or a short infusion, a cath-
eter has to be inserted into a vein. Small and fragile veins should
be avoided. The catheter should never be inserted in a limb that
is affected by lymphoedema or has a neurological weakness.
Veins adjacent to tendons, nerves or arteries should be avoided,
while areas of high venous pressure should not be used.
• If the drugs are given by slow bolus injection by peripheral
infusion, the placement of the catheter should be in the forearm
and not in the hand. In case of extravasation, the tissues and
muscles in the forearm may prevent involvement of ligaments,
nerves and bone.
• Before administering a cytotoxic agent, the catheter is flushed
by a free flowing infusion with natrium chloride 0.9% or
glucose 5% solution for at least 5 min. At the end of the admin-
istration of a cytotoxic drug, the same procedure is repeated.
• The patient is informed that in case of pain or other discom-
fort the nurse should be informed immediately.
• The exact position of the catheter is checked by aspiration of
blood. The drug is then slowly injected. In case of complaints by
the patient, the administration is stopped, the nurse aspirates as
much as possible of the injected drug, stops the infusion, leaves
the catheter in place and calls for a physician .
• The physician gives instructions how to deal with the event
and may start treatment for extravasation. The event and the
treatment procedure should be noted in the patient file and on
the extravasation form.
Treatment of extravasation
The type of treatment for extravasation is dependent on the drug.
• In case of extravasation of an irritant, the catheter may be
removed and the affected extremity is elevated. Cold or warm
compresses may be applied. Hot packs are believed to cause
vasodilatation, leading to the dilution of the extravasated drug.
Cold packs may cause venous constriction leading to localiza-
tion of the drugs and therefore increase degradation of toxic
metabolites. They may also reduce local inflammation and pain.
• Inflammation may be treated with local anti-inflammatory
drugs. Pain should be treated by analgesics.
• In case of extravasation of a vesicant, the catheter is left in
place and an antidote may be injected depending on the extra-
vasated drug. Furthermore, the affected extremity is kept elevated
and a cold or hot pack is applied. In case of extravasation with
vinca alkaloids, a hot pack is applied, since in animal models
there was an increase in ulceration when cold packs were
applied. For all other vesicants cold packs are indicated.
Several drugs have been tested in the treatment of anthracycline
extravasation in animal models or patients.
Prevention of damage
Until recently, the application of topical DMSO has been advo-
cated for the treatment of extravasation of anthracyclines. Several
animal experiments [2, 3] and case reports have described the effi-
cacy of intradermal or topical DMSO .
In a prospective study, 17 patients were treated with topical
DMSO. It was applied immediately after extravasation covering
twice the area affected by the extravasation. This treatment was
repeated twice daily for 14 days. No ulceration developed and no
surgical intervention was necessary .
In another prospective study, 69 patients suffering from anthra-
cycline extravasation had 99% DMSO applied topically every 8 h
for 7 days in combination with intermittent cooling (1 h, three
times daily). This treatment proved to be safe and effective with
ulceration developing in only one patient. Side-effects were mild
local burning and a characteristic breath odor due to DMSO .
Recently, dexrazoxane has been advocated for the treatment of
anthracycline extravasation. In animal models, the use of one
single subcutaneous injection of dexrazoxane after an injection of
doxorubicin, daunorubicin or idarubicin reduced the tissue lesion
significantly, with a reduction in the size of the wound and the
healing duration. Dexrazoxane could be administered up to 3–6 h
after anthracycline extravasation without loss of efficacy. Triple
dosage of dexrazoxane appeared to be more effective than a single
Table 1. Vesicants and irritants
DNA-binding vesicant drugs
Alkylating agentsNitrogen mustard
AnthracyclinesDaunorubicin, doxorubicin, epirubicin, idarubicin
OthersDactinomycin, mitomycin C
Non-DNA-binding vesicant drugs
Vinca alkaloidsVinblastine, vincristine, vinorelbine
Alkylating agents Carmustine, dacarbazine, carboplatin, cisplatin, cyclofosfamide,
ifosfamide, melphalan, oxaliplatin, thiothepa
AntimetabolitesCytarabine, fludarabine, 5-fluorouracil, gemcitabine, raltitrexed,
OthersIrinotecan, bleomycin, etoposide
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This treatment was also tested in two patients with epirubicin
extravasation. Both patients were treated intravenously with
dexrazoxane (1000 mg/m2 within 5 h of extravasation on day 1,
1000 mg/m2 on day 2, 500 mg/m2 on day 3). No surgical interven-
tion was necessary and no long-term sequelae were seen after
3 months. The only side-effects were transient elevation of liver
transaminases and leukopenia .
Experimental animal studies have been performed with vitamin
C [3, 9], heparin fractions , hyaluronidase , N-acetyl-
cysteine  and α-tocopherol  showing a beneficial effect of
all these drugs in the prevention of anthracycline-induced ulcera-
tion. However, their value in patients remains to be determined.
Treatment of ulcerations
If injury occurs, the patient may develop ulceration with a raised,
red, painful edge and a necrotic yellow base. These ulcers lack
granulation tissue and there is very little peripheral epithelial
ingrowth. They do not heal and tend to increase in size and
In animal experiments, it was shown that the injection of
granulocyte–macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF)
6 µg at the injection site of doxorubicin had a beneficial effect on
the doxorubicin-induced tissue necrosis . This beneficial
effect was confirmed in another animal model for granulocyte
colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) or GM-CSF .
One patient has been reported who developed two doxorubicin-
induced ulcerations. One ulcer was treated with weekly GM-CSF
at a dose of 400 µg subcutaneously for 3 weeks and did heal by the
fourth week. The second ulcer was treated with G-CSF, but no
improvement was seen .
The use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy was also studied in
animal models. While hyperbaric oxygen treatment did potentiate
doxorubicin toxicity when administered concomitantly , it
had a beneficial effect on ulcer healing when given twice daily
compared with no hyperbaric treatment . To date, the value of
this approach in patients with ulcerations due to extravasation has
not been published.
In patients with ulcerations due to anthracycline extravasation,
two surgical approaches are possible. One surgical treatment option
is to perform early extensive surgical debridement within 24 h to
1 week after extravasation with delayed closure of the wound
[19, 20]. Pain is an indication for immediate surgery . The
extent of surgery may be determined by fluorescence microscopy.
Excision of all fluorescence-positive tissues led to less late
sequelae when performed within seven hours . The wound
may be temporarily covered with a biological dressing. Once the
wound is clean, a delayed application of a skin graft (split-thick-
ness) may be applied after 2–3 days .
Most surgeons opt for a conservative approach since only one-
third of vesicants will give rise to ulceration. However, continued
swelling, erythema and pain without ulceration, persisting after
conservative therapy or the presence of large areas of tissue necro-
sis or skin ulcerations are indications for surgery [23–26]. In this
case, surgery is usually performed 2–3 weeks after extravasation.
Mitomycin C is a vesicant . Contrary to anthracyclines,
distant and delayed ulcerations have been described [28–30]. As
for anthracyclines, toxicity of mitomycin C can be prevented by
the topical application of DMSO [31, 32]. Also, a topical mixture
of DMSO (90%) and α-tocopherol (10%) was effective in the
prevention of skin ulceration by mitomycin C . There is also a
report that local injection of pyridoxine may slow or prevent
necrosis and alleviate pain . In case of ulceration due to
extravasation, preoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
may be used to indicate the extent of tissue invasion .
Both docetaxel and paclitaxel have been reported to cause tissue
damage after extravasation. Several reports indicate that docetaxel
may cause erythema, blistering and pain. Conservative manage-
ment resulted in complete recovery after 4 weeks in one patient
, while the dilution with subcutaneous saline, local hypo-
thermia and topical DMSO (three times every 45 min), cortico-
steroids or diclofenac were effective in restricting inflammation
In animal models, paclitaxel gave rise to skin ulceration and
necrosis proving its vesicant character. A treatment with intra-
dermal hyaluronidase (15 U) diluted in saline was effective in
preventing paclitaxel-induced ulceration. Topical treatment as
topical DMSO, cooling or heating did not had a beneficial effect
Several case reports have reported on the vesicant character of
paclitaxel [40–43]. No guidelines for treating paclitaxel extra-
vasation in man have been proposed.
Vinblastine, vincristine and vinorelbine cause tissue damage after
extravasation and are classified as vesicants. Animal experiments
showed that cold packs may increase toxicity, while hot packs
may limit skin damage. Also, the use of calcium leucovorin,
diphenhydramine, hydrocortisone, isoproterenol, sodium bicar-
bonate and vitamin A cream were ineffective in animal models
In humans, dilution of the drugs with saline or hyaluronidase
(150–1500 U subcutaneously in surrounding tissues) in combin-
ation with hot packs is the treatment of choice [1, 44].
Nitrogen mustard or mechlorethamine
Nitrogen mustard is a vesicant that produces severe and prolonged
skin ulceration after extravasation. In several animal experiments,
sodium thiosulfate was not able to prevent nitrogen mustard skin
toxicity when given intravenously immediately before or after
extravasation. However, when given immediately after extra-
vasation by intradermal injection, it had a protective effect.
Therefore, in humans the recommendation in case of nitrogen
mustard extravasation is an immediate subcutaneous adminis-
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tration of 2 ml of 0.17 M sodium thiosulfate solution (4 ml of 10%
sodium thiosulfate and 6 ml sterile water for injection) .
Extravasation is a severe complication of chemotherapy. Preven-
tion by adequate guidelines of chemotherapy administration and
training of nurses is of the utmost importance. In case of extra-
vasation, the correct treatment according to the specific drug
should be given (Table 2).
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Table 2. Guidelines for antidote use after extravasation
DMSO, dimethylsulfoxide; i.v., intravenously; s.c., subcutaneously.
AnthracyclinesDMSO Apply locally as soon as possible and repeat
every 8 h for 7 days
Dexrazoxane 1000 mg/m2 i.v. within 5 h of extravasation
on day 1, 1000 mg/m2 on day 2, 500 mg/m2 on day 3
Mitomycin C DMSO Apply locally as soon as possible and repeat
every 8 h for 7 days
Nitrogen mustard Sodium thiosulfate 2 ml of a solution of 4 ml sodium thiosulfate
+ 6 ml sterile water for injection s.c.
Vinca alkaloids Hyaluronidase150–1500 U s.c.
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