What is an Alpha Interferon?

Jennifer Long

Alpha interferon, also known as interferon alpha or IFN-alpha, is a type of chemotherapy drug. It is the first of three classes of interferon and precedes the beta and gamma classes. Although widely used to treat many forms of cancer, alpha interferon can also be used to treat several blood disorders.

The potential harmful side effects of alpha interferon include depression and suicidal thoughts.
The potential harmful side effects of alpha interferon include depression and suicidal thoughts.

Interferons are proteins that are made by the body as part of the natural immune system responses. These particular proteins help the body fight bacteria and virus invasions. As a type of chemotherapy, alpha interferons are manufactured by using human interferons and artificial DNA. The result is a treatment that can be used to fight difficult diseases, such as forms of cancer.

A fever and chills often accompany treatment with alpha interferon.
A fever and chills often accompany treatment with alpha interferon.

Unlike other treatments, alpha interferon is not a means of curing cancer or any other disease. Instead, it is used like a booster. It works in conjunction with the body’s natural production to attack foreign bodies. It also works to reduce the amount of antigen on a tumor cell’s surface, making it easier to be destroyed by the immune system.

Nausea is a possible side effect of alpha interferon treatment.
Nausea is a possible side effect of alpha interferon treatment.

Each of the three classes of interferons works with the body differently from the others, even though they are similar. Beta and gamma interferons are primarily ineffective in the treatment of cancer, while alpha interferons are used as the primary treatment. At the same time, alpha interferons are not effective for treating granulomatous disease, as gamma interferons are, or for treating multiple sclerosis, as the beta classes are.

Alpha interferon treatment can cause fatigue, requiring patients to get large amounts of rest.
Alpha interferon treatment can cause fatigue, requiring patients to get large amounts of rest.

Alpha interferon treatment is given by injection only, either through a vein, under the skin or into a muscle. A patient’s height, weight, age, type of cancer and current health condition are factors that determine the dosage given. Potential drug interactions are also considered.

Common symptoms that accompany treatment include flu-like symptoms such as a fever, chills and body aches. Fatigue can also occur, especially as treatments continue. These symptoms occur more often following an injection, but they are temporary. Many doctors recommend an equal amount of rest and light exercise to help combat fatigue.

Although rare in occurrence, there are some potentially dangerous side effects that one should watch for. Dizziness and nausea are not as severe but should be discussed with the patient's doctor. If thoughts of suicide or depression are experienced, a doctor should be consulted as soon as possible. Also, immediate medical attention should be sought if a rash appears or there is severe abdominal pain. These could be signs of a serious reaction that will need to be taken care of quickly.

Alpha interferon is a chemotherapy drug that is used to treat some types of blood disorders.
Alpha interferon is a chemotherapy drug that is used to treat some types of blood disorders.

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