Graft-versus-host disease is a common complication after a bone marrow, stem cell or cord blood transplant.

Printer-friendly version

What Is Graft-versus-Host Disease?

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a common complication following a transplant using cells from a donor (allogeneic transplant). It is NOT an issue for patients who were transplanted with their own stem cells (autologous transplant).

GVHD occurs when the donor's immune system (the graft) perceives the patient's organs and tissues (the host) as unfamiliar cells that should be destroyed.

The donor cells that trigger this reaction are a type of white blood cell called T-cells. They are part of the immune system and help protect the body against infection and fight cancer.

Approximately 50 percent of patients transplanted with donor cells develop graft-versus-host disease. 

Most cases of GVHD are mild or moderate and resolve over time. However, GVHD can also be severe and, in some cases, life-threatening.

Patients who develop GVHD usually do so within the first year after transplant. However, GVHD can also occur months or years later.

Two Types of GVHD

There are two forms of GVHD: 

  • acute GVHD
  • chronic GVHD. 

Each has a different effect on organs and tissues.

Although acute and chronic GVHD usually occur during different time periods after transplant, it is possible to have both at the same time.

Watch a video about GVHD

(To view this page in Spanish click here)

Next page:  Acute Graft-versus-Host Disease

Updated June 2024