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How Effective is Interferon for Multiple Sclerosis?

By Theresa Waldron
Updated: Jan 30, 2024

Interferon, also referred to as beta interferon, is an antiviral protein used to treat the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, also known as MS. There are three types of interferon typically prescribed for treating relapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS): Avonex®, Betaseron® and Rebif®. Interferon for Multiple Sclerosis has been shown to effectively decrease the number of relapses Multiple Sclerosis patients suffer and to slow the rate of physical disability. Treatment may shorten the length of attacks and make them less severe as well. Interferon for Multiple Sclerosis also may be effective at decreasing the destruction of nerves that is characteristic of the disease.

Though there is no cure for Multiple Sclerosis, interferon has been shown to effectively treat the symptoms of the disease. Interferon for Multiple Sclerosis is usually prescribed — and most effective — for patients suffering from RRMS. With this type of Multiple Sclerosis, patients experience symptoms for short periods followed by symptom-free periods. Three forms of interferon have been proven effective for slowing the progression of Multiple Sclerosis and helping to prevent relapses: Betaseron®, Avonex®, and Rebif®.

Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease. When symptoms flare up, the body basically recognizes healthy myelin — the insulator for spinal cord and brain nerve cells — as a dangerous invader and attacks. Myelin functions as the electrochemical transmitter between the brain and the body. When the body attacks and damages myelin, neurological processes are interrupted and a number of Multiple Sclerosis symptoms can present, such as numbness, paralysis, speech impediment and visual distortion, among many others.

Some studies indicate interferon treatment can slow or prevent the destruction of myelin, thereby speeding the recovery time from relapse attacks, extending the time between relapses or helping to prevent relapses in the first place. Interferon may also block the production of gamma interferon, a chemical produced by the body's immune system. Gamma interferon may contribute to the body's destructive immune response to myelin and help trigger symptomatic episodes of Multiple Sclerosis. Studies are showing that interferon may suppress the body's immune system, which would effectively inhibit gamma interferon production.

Interferon for Multiple Sclerosis is typically administered through a subcutaneous injection; patients learn from their healthcare providers the proper ways to inject themselves at home. Solutions should be clear — any discoloration or contamination should be reported to a doctor and not used. Oral interferon in pill form also is available; studies indicate the oral form is not as effective for preventing relapses on its own, but may be effective when combined with other medications, such as Tysabri®.

Common side effects of interferon include chills, fever and headache. More serious side effects, such as bruising, stomach or chest pain, swelling and appetite loss are rare, but possible. Interferon treatments can also damage the liver. A doctor should be contacted if any side effects are severe or long-lasting.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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