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What Are the Most Common Immunotherapy Side Effects?

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  • Written By: Amanda Livingstone
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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Immunotherapy side effects vary depending on the specific treatment. This therapy involves using medication that either activates or suppresses the immune system. Patients undergoing activation immunotherapies typically experience chills, fever and injection site reactions. Common side effects of suppression immunotherapies generally include — but are not limited to — skin irritation, fatigue and infection.

Treatments to activate the immune system include vaccination and cancer fighting therapies. Vaccination therapy involves administering an active or inactive pathogen to produce immunity against a specific disease-causing agent. Despite having many benefits, vaccines have been associated with many common and serious side effects.

Common vaccination side effects include soreness, pain and swelling at the injection site. Less common side effects are fatigue, muscle aches and fever. Depending on the dosage and the type of vaccine administered, the symptoms should last from a few hours to several days. Serious immunotherapy side effects from vaccines can include severe allergic reactions, seizures and even brain damage.

Cancer immunotherapy stimulates the patient’s body to attack malignant tumor cells. One of the most common cancer immunotherapies involves using monoclonal antibodies, which help the immune system to attack tumor cells. Side effects associated with this antibody treatment include skin rashes, flu-like symptoms and low blood pressure. Less common side effects include bleeding issues, low electrolytes and serious heart ailments, including heart failure.

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Suppression immunotherapies are used to treat a variety of conditions, including allergies, autoimmune disorders and organ transplant rejection. In the case of allergies, immune desensitizing agents are usually injected into the patient’s body with the intent of reducing allergic attacks. The most common immunotherapy side effects with allergy treatments are redness, swelling and pain at the injection site. Some people experience more serious reactions such as hives, wheezing and chest tightness.

Immunotherapy is necessary for organ transplantation and severe forms of autoimmune disorders due to the immune system’s destructive power. The body may see the transplanted organ as a foreign agent that needs to be destroyed. Similarly, autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), involve an overactive immune system that targets, attacks and destroys any form of tissue, muscle, or organ. Immune suppressing agents such as cyclosporines and corticosteroids subdue certain agents responsible for organ rejection and autoimmune disorders.

These suppressive agents have been credited in extending the life of transplanted organs and reducing organ damage in autoimmune disorders, but the drugs often carry serious side effects. One common side effect of all these drugs is an increased risk of infection. In patients whose the immune system has been suppressed, an infection can pose a significant danger to health. Other common suppressive immunotherapy side effects are nausea and fatigue. In addition, side effects attributed to long-term use of immunosuppressive drugs include cancer and organ dysfunction.

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