Immunotherapy Side Effect: Pneumonitis

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: May 28, 2019

What is pneumonitis?

Pneumonitis is inflammation of the lungs. It can be caused by breathing in a toxin or allergen, or as a side effect of a medication or radiation treatment. It can be a side effect of immunotherapy medications. These medications work by stimulating your body’s immune system. Sometimes your immune system can attack normal, noncancerous parts of your body, such as your lungs (pneumonitis). Pneumonitis can be severe or life-threatening and can happen at any time during treatment or even after treatment has ended.

What are symptoms of pneumonitis?

Pneumonitis can cause: 

  • Shortness of breath.
  • A low level of oxygen in the body. 
  • Fever.
  • Cough. 
  • Chest pain with breathing.

How is pneumonitis treated?

Early detection and treatment of pneumonitis is important. Many side effects of immunotherapy are treatable, including pneumonitis, but it is important to notify your provider immediately of any changes in how you are feeling. Treatment of pneumonitis related to immunotherapy medicines depends on how serious of a reaction you have. Your provider may continue to monitor you closely without any changes in treatment, or you might be prescribed corticosteroids or other medications to help manage your lung problems. If the reaction is severe, your treatment may be held or discontinued. 

When should you contact your care team?

If you are taking any immunotherapy medication, you should contact your care team as soon as you have any changes in how you are feeling. You should also make sure that any provider involved in your care is aware that you are taking an immunotherapy medication, as this can change the course of your treatment.

References

Brahmer, J.R., Lacchetti, C., Schneider, B.J., Atkins, M.B., Brassil, K.J., Caterino, J.M., …Thompson, J.A. (2018). Management of Immune-Related Adverse Events in Patients Treated With Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor Therapy: American Society of Clinical Oncology Clinical Practice Guideline. Journal of Clinical Oncology,17, (36).Retrieved from https://ascopubs.org/doi/10.1200/JCO.2017.77.6385.

Cavallo, J. (2018). Meeting the Challenges of Immunotherapy-Related Toxicities. The ASCO Post. Retrieved from https://www.ascopost.com/issues/august-10-2018/challenges-of-immunotherapy-related-toxicities/

National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. (2018). Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/immunotherapy.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). (2018). [PDF Infographic of Immunotherapy Side Effects]. Understanding Immunotherapy Side Effects.Retreived from https://www.nccn.org/images/pdf/Immunotherapy_Infographic.pdf.

Weber, J.S., Yang, J.C., Atkins, M.B., & Disis, M.L. (2015). Toxicities of Immunotherapy for the Practitioner.Journal of Clinical Oncology18(33). Retrieved from https://ascopubs.org/doi/full/10.1200/JCO.2014.60.0379.

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