Antineoplastic Drugs: Definition & Side Effects

Instructor: Heather Pier

Heather has taught high school and college science courses, and has a master's degree in geography-climatology.

In this lesson, you will learn what an antineoplastic drug is, how they work within the human body, and the potential side effects of using this type of drug for treating illnesses.

What Is an Antineoplastic Drug?

Cancer is an extremely common disease, which impacts an untold number of people (and animals) each year. The abnormal cell division caused by cancers can impact virtually any body system, unlike other diseases that may only impact a single organ. In many cases, multiple systems are impacted at the same time.

So how do we treat a disease that can take so many different forms? We use a special group of medicines called antineoplastic drugs that can range in form from antibiotics to chemotherapy agents.

There are many different types of antineoplastic drugs on the market, most of which cause side effects.

How Do Antineoplastic Drugs Work?

Antineoplastic drugs are medicines that are used to treat some forms of cancer. Most drugs on the market are designed to kill only a specific type of bacteria or virus, but antineoplastic drugs have to target a wide range of cells over sometimes multiple body systems. As a result, anti-cancer drugs often harm healthy cells in an attempt to kill the cancer cells.

Antineoplastic drugs are different from the over-the-counter drugs you might take for a cold or allergies. Those drugs target a specific problem in a specific location, like a runny nose or sore throat, while antineoplastic drugs target all unhealthy cells in a person's body.

The problem with this is that it is very hard to design a drug to kill only cancer cells that won't accidentally harm other cells at the same time. They work in a way that is similar to the weed killers that you use to kill unwanted plants that might be growing in your grass.

The weed killer will definitely kill the weeds, but there is also a very good chance it will also kill any grass that it gets sprayed on that might be in the vicinity of the weed.

Antineoplastic drugs are very good at killing their targeted cells, but a lot of other healthy cells tend to end up as collateral damage. This lack of specificity is what causes antineoplastic drugs to have so many potential side effects.

Potential Side Effects

Most people are aware that when people are being treated for cancer, their treatment often has side effects like hair loss or weight loss. A side effect is anything experienced by the human body that is caused by a drug other than what the drug was designed to do.

So if you get an upset stomach from taking a medication for your headache, that upset stomach would be a side effect. It is a problem that is created when you take a medication to treat a different problem.

Hair loss is one of the most common side effects of antineoplastic drugs.

With antineoplastic drugs, side effects are caused by a combination of healthy cells accidentally being killed, lower than usual blood cell counts, and the typical drug-related side effects you might experience when you start taking a new medication.

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