Last Modified: August 22, 2011
Pronounced: IN-ter-FEER-ahn AL-fuh
Classification: Biologic Response Modifier
Interferon-alpha is a type of medication called a biologic response modifier. It is a type of protein called a cytokine that works to increase the function of various components of the body's immune system. This protein is normally produced in the body, but in small amounts. By increasing the levels of interferon, the immune system gets a kick-start, mounting an attack against the cancer cells, which are seen as foreign invaders. In addition, interferon-alpha is able to interfere with the cancer cell's ability to divide.
Interferon-alpha can be given in several different ways: intravenously (into a vein), by subcutaneous injection (needle under the skin), or by intramuscular injection (a needle into the muscle). The actual dose is dependent on your body size and the disease it is treating.
There are a number of things you can do to manage the side effects of Interferon Alfa. Talk to your doctor or nurse about these recommendations. They can help you decide what will work best for you. These are some of the most common side effects:
This occurs in a majority of patients because of the "revving-up" of the immune system. Flu-like syndrome generally occurs within hours of the injection and includes fever, chills, headache, muscle and joint aches and poor appetite. Medications such as acetaminophen can be used to manage these symptoms. Try to keep warm with blankets and warm clothes and drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids. Some patients find that taking the dose before bedtime allows them to sleep through the flu-like symptoms. These symptoms do decrease, for some patients, over time on the therapy.
White blood cells (WBC) are important for fighting infection. While receiving treatment, your WBC count can drop, putting you at a higher risk of getting an infection. You should let your doctor or nurse know right away if you have a fever (temperature greater than 100.4 F), sore throat or cold, shortness of breath, cough, burning with urination, or a sore that doesn't heal.
Tips to preventing infection:
For more suggestions, read the Neutropenia Tip Sheet.
Your red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues in your body. When the red cell count is low, you may feel tired or weak. You should let your doctor or nurse know if you experience any shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or pain in your chest. If the count gets too low, you may receive a blood transfusion. Read the anemia tip sheet for more information.
Platelets help your blood clot, so when the count is low you are at a higher risk of bleeding. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have any excess bruising or bleeding, including nosebleeds, bleeding gums or blood in your urine or stool. If your platelet count becomes too low, you may receive a transfusion of platelets.
Read the thrombocytopenia tip sheet for more information.
Take anti-nausea medications as prescribed. If you continue to have nausea or vomiting, notify your doctor or nurse so they can help you manage this side effect. In addition, dietary changes may help. Avoid things that may worsen the symptoms, such as heavy or greasy/fatty, spicy or acidic foods (lemons, tomatoes, oranges). Try antacids, (e.g. milk of magnesia, calcium tablets such as Tums), saltines, or ginger ale to lessen symptoms. Read the Nausea & Vomiting Tip Sheet for more suggestions.
Call your doctor or nurse if you are unable to keep fluids down for more than 12 hours or if you feel lightheaded or dizzy at any time.
While on cancer treatment you may need to adjust your schedule to manage fatigue. Plan times to rest during the day and conserve energy for more important activities. Exercise can help combat fatigue; a simple daily walk with a friend can help. Talk to your healthcare team and see OncoLink's section on fatigue for helpful tips on dealing with this side effect.
Your oncology team can recommend medications to relieve diarrhea. Also, try eating low-fiber, bland foods, such as white rice and boiled or baked chicken. Avoid raw fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, cereals and seeds. Soluble fiber is found in some foods that absorbs fluid and can help relieve diarrhea. Foods high in soluble fiber include: applesauce, bananas (ripe), canned fruit, orange and grapefruit sections, boiled potatoes, white rice and products made with white flour, oatmeal, cream of rice, cream of wheat, and farina. Drink 8-10 glasses on non-alcoholic, un-caffeinated fluid a day to prevent dehydration. Read Low Fiber Diet for Diarrhea for more tips.
Your hair may become thin, brittle, or in rare cases, may fall out. This typically begins two to three weeks after treatment starts. This hair loss can be all body hair, including pubic, underarm, legs/arms, eyelashes, and nose hairs. The use of scarves, wigs, hats and hairpieces may help. Hair generally starts to regrow soon after treatment is completed. Remember your hair helps keep you warm in cold weather, so a hat is particularly important in cold weather or to protect you from the sun. Read more on alopecia.
Interferon-alpha has been reported to cause mood disturbances, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide. You should contact your healthcare provider immediately if you have signs of depression, including extreme sadness, crying, changes in mood, loss of interest in activities, or thoughts of hurting yourself.