Interferon alpha (IntronA ®, Roferon-A ®)
Interferon alpha is a biological therapy used to treat cancer of the kidney, malignant melanoma, multiple myeloma and carcinoid tumours.
Interferon alpha is a biological therapy used to treat cancer of the kidney, malignant melanoma, multiple myeloma and carcinoid tumours. There are three main types of interferon: alpha, beta and gamma.
It’s best to read this information with our general information about the type of cancer you have.
During treatment, you will see a cancer doctor and a cancer nurse. This is who we mean when we mention doctor or nurse in this information.
Interferon is a protein the body makes in very small amounts. It can also be made outside the body and used as a drug
Interferon is given to stimulate the body’s immune system to fight some types of cancer. The immune system is the body’s defence against infection and disease.
slow down or stop the cancer cells dividing
reduce the ability of the cancer cells to protect themselves from the immune system
strengthen the immune system.
How interferon is given
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Interferon comes in small glass bottles, pre-filled syringes and special injection pens. It is given as an injection just under the skin (subcutaneously), usually in the thigh or abdomen. You, a relative or carer can be taught how to give these injections so you can have the treatment at home. Or, a district nurse or GP practice nurse can give you the injections.
Your doctor or specialist nurse will explain how often you will have the drug and how long the treatment course will last. This will depend on the type of cancer being treated.
There are some important things to remember about interferon:
If you forget to take your injection, tell your doctor – don’t take a double dose.
Store it in the fridge. Portable fridges can be bought from camping shops to store interferon if you're away from home. Follow any storage instructions given by your pharmacist.
If your doctor decides to stop the treatment, return any remaining injections to the pharmacist. Don’t throw them away.
Possible side effects of interferon
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We have included the most common side effects of interferon here. We haven’t included all the less common and rarer side effects. You may get some of the side effects we mention, but you will not get them all.
If you have chemotherapy along with interferon, some side effects may be worse. You may also have side effects not listed here. We have more information about chemotherapy and its side effects.
Your doctor can prescribe drugs to help control some side effects. It is very important to take them exactly as your nurse or pharmacist has explained. This will help the drugs work as well as possible for you.
Your nurse will give you advice about managing side effects. After your treatment is over, the side effects will start to improve. Always tell your doctor or nurse about any side effects you have.
Serious and life-threatening side effects
Sometimes cancer drugs can result in very serious side effects, which rarely may be life-threatening. Your cancer doctor and nurse can explain the risk of these side effects to you.
Contact the hospital
Your nurse will give you telephone numbers for the hospital. You can call them if you feel unwell or need advice any time of day or night. Save these numbers in your phone or keep them somewhere safe.
More information about this drug
We’re not able to list every side effect for this treatment here, particularly the rarer ones. For more detailed information you can visit the electronic medicines compendium (eMC).
Common side effects of interferon
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These include a high temperature, chills, and muscle and joint pains. They may start 2 – 3 hours after injecting interferon.
After the first injection, these symptoms may be quite severe. They usually become milder with further injections. Some people find it helpful to have their interferon before going to bed at night so that the side effects are less noticeable. Your doctor may prescribe medicine such as paracetamol to reduce these side effects.
Feeling tired is a common side effect of interferon. It’s important to try to pace yourself and get as much rest as you need. Try to balance this with taking some gentle exercise, such as short walks. If tiredness is making you feel drowsy, don’t drive or operate machinery.
Depression and emotional changes
In some people, interferon can cause mood changes such as depression, anxiety, mood swings, restlessness or difficulty sleeping. If you feel depressed, or have other changes to your mood, it’s important to tell your doctor straight away. If depression develops and is left untreated it may become severe.
Effect on blood cells
Interferon can reduce the number of blood cells in your blood. You will have regular blood tests to check your blood cell numbers.
Risk of infection
If you have a low number of white blood cells, you are more likely to get an infection. If this happens during your treatment, your doctor or nurse will advise you how to reduce your risk of infection. Rarely, your doctor may also ask you to stop injecting interferon for a short time until your white blood cell numbers recover.
Contact the hospital straight away if:
your temperature goes over 37.5°C (99.5° F) or over 38°C (100.4° F), depending on the advice given by your healthcare team
you suddenly feel unwell, even with a normal temperature
you have symptoms of an infection – this can include feeling shaky, a sore throat, a cough, diarrhoea or needing to pass urine a lot.
If your red blood cells are low, you may look pale and feel more tired than usual. If you have too few blood clotting cells (platelets), you will bleed and bruise more easily. It's important to report any signs of bleeding or bruising to your doctor.
Feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)
If needed, your doctor can prescribe anti-sickness drugs to prevent, or greatly reduce, nausea and vomiting. If the sickness isn't controlled, or if it continues, tell your doctor, who can prescribe other anti-sickness drugs that may work better for you.
Some anti-sickness drugs can cause constipation. Let your doctor or nurse know if this is a problem.
Loss of appetite
Some people lose their appetite. If it doesn’t improve or you are losing weight you can ask to see a dietitian or nurse at your hospital. They can give you advice on what may help.
You may find that food tastes different. This should go away when your treatment finishes. Try using herbs and spices (unless you have a sore mouth or ulcers) or strong-flavoured sauces to give your food more flavour. Your nurse or dietician can give you more advice.
Skin irritation at the injection site
This can be reduced by giving the injections of interferon in different places. Tell your nurse or doctor if an injection site becomes red, tender and warm as these can be signs of infection.
Interferon may cause headaches. If you have more frequent or severe headaches than usual, let your doctor or nurse know.
It is important to report this to your doctor if you are affected.
Your doctor can prescribe drugs to control diarrhoea. Let them know if it is severe or if it doesn’t get better. Make sure you drink at least two litres (three and a half pints) of fluids every day if you have diarrhoea.
Interferon can cause increased sweating in some people. Wearing natural fabrics such as cotton may be more comfortable if you are affected.
You may notice your hair will start to thin. Rarely interferon can cause complete hair loss. Any effects on your hair are temporary, and hair usually begins to grow back and thicken a few weeks after treatment has finished. We have more information about coping with hair loss.
Dry or sore mouth
Your mouth may become sore and you may get ulcers. This can make you more likely to get an infection in your mouth. Gently clean your teeth and/or dentures morning and night and after meals. Use a soft-bristled or children’s toothbrush. Your nurse might ask you to rinse your mouth regularly or use mouthwashes. It’s important to follow any advice you are given and to drink plenty of fluids.
Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any problems with your mouth. They can prescribe medicines to prevent or treat mouth infections and reduce any soreness.
Some people notice their skin becomes dry or itchy during treatment. Drinking plenty of fluids and moisturising your skin regularly can help to relieve dryness and itching. Your nurse or doctor can advise you about products that can help relieve dry or itchy skin. If you have psoriasis, it may get worse during treatment with interferon. Your doctor can tell you more about this.
Effects on circulation
Interferon may alter the rhythm of the heart or affect your blood pressure. This will go back to normal when you stop taking the drug. Always tell your doctor if you notice any changes to your heartbeat, or if you have chest tightness or chest pain when taking interferon.
Less common and rare side effects of interferon
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Rarely, some people have an allergic reaction to interferon. Contact the hospital straight away if you develop:
red, warm and itchy bumps on the skin (like nettle rash)
swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
breathlessness, wheezing, a cough or sudden difficulty breathing
tight chest or chest pain.
Raised blood sugar levels
Interferon may raise your blood sugar levels. Symptoms of raised blood sugar include feeling thirsty, needing to pass urine more often and feeling tired. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.
If you have diabetes, your blood sugar levels may be higher than usual. Your doctor will talk to you about how to manage this.
Effects on the eyes
Your eyes may become sore, red or itchy (conjunctivitis). If this happens, tell your doctor. They can prescribe eye drops to help. Interferon can sometimes cause blurred vision. Changes are usually mild but rarely can be more severe. If you notice any changes in your vision, contact your doctor so that they can check your eyes.
Effects on lungs
Rarely interferon can affect the lungs. If you develop a cough or breathlessness, contact your doctor for advice. They may arrange for you to have a chest x-ray to check your lungs. If lung changes happen, they usually go away with treatment and by stopping interferon.
Changes in kidneys or liver
In some people, interferon can affect their kidneys or liver. This is usually mild and goes back to normal after treatment. You will have regular blood tests to check your kidneys and liver.
If you have had an organ transplant, such as a kidney or liver transplant, interferon treatment may increase the risk of rejection. It’s important to discuss this with your doctor before starting treatment.
Contact your doctor straight away if you feel unwell or have any severe side effects, even if they're not mentioned above.
Other information about interferon
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Some medicines, including those that you can buy in a shop or chemist, can increase the side effects of interferon, such as drowsiness, or they may be harmful to take while you’re having interferon. Tell your doctor about any medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs, asthma medications, complementary therapies and herbal drugs.
Driving and using machines
Do not drive or use machines if you have blurred vision, feel drowsy, tired, or have difficulty concentrating when taking interferon.
Interferon may affect your ability to have children (able to get pregnant or father a child). Women’s menstrual periods may become irregular. Men may have a lower sperm count. These effects may be temporary but for some people can be permanent. It’s important to discuss fertility with your doctor before starting treatment. We have more information about cancer treatments and fertility for men and women.
It's not advisable to become pregnant or father a child while having interferon, as it may harm the developing baby. It’s important to use effective contraception while taking this drug. You can discuss this with your doctor or nurse.
There is a potential risk that interferon drugs may be present in breast milk. It is not advisable to breastfeed during treatment and for a few months afterwards.
Medical or dental treatment
If you need to go into hospital for any reason other than cancer, always tell the doctors and nurses that you are taking interferon. Tell them the name of your cancer doctor so they can ask for advice.
Always tell your dentist you are taking interferon.
This page has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC; medicines.org.uk). If you’d like further information on the sources we use, please feel free to contact us.
This information was reviewed by a healthcare professional.
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