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Imiquimod cream for skin cancer

Men and woman discussing skin cancer

This page tells you about imiquimod cream (Aldara). This is a new type of treatment for the most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma (BCC). You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Imiquimod cream for skin cancer treatment

Imiquimod cream uses your immune system to attack cancers. This means it uses your body’s natural defences to kill the skin cancer cells. Imiquimod cream is approved in the UK to treat superficial basal cell skin cancers that measure up to 2cm across.

Imiquimod side effects

You usually put imiquimod on to the affected area once a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. Your doctor or nurse will show you how to do this.

Some people find that their skin gets red and sore in the area. This usually happens within 3 to 5 days. Some people have a lot of scabbing and crusting, which can be uncomfortable. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have any side effects.

In a few people more serious skin reactions can occur. These include a very sore area, or spots on the skin, as well as itching, a high temperature (fever), achy joints, eyesight changes and mouth sores. If you have any symptoms like these, you should stop using the cream and tell your doctor or nurse immediately.

Some people find that they have lower numbers of blood cells while using imiquimod. This can make you more likely to get infections, can make you bruise more easily, and can make you feel tired.
 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating skin cancer section.

 

 

What imiquimod cream does

Imiquimod cream uses your immune system to attack cancers. This means it uses your body’s natural defences to kill the skin cancer cells. It does this by releasing a number of chemicals called cytokines. One of these cytokines is called interferon. Interferon is a protein that is made naturally as part of the body’s immune response. Interferon is also used as a cancer treatment. It is thought that imiquimod makes cells produce more interferon which destroys the skin cancer cells.

 

Who should use imiquimod cream

Some small studies in the USA and Australia have shown that this cream may be of great benefit to people with small, early stage BCC. The trials in these two countries have shown that between 70 and 100 out of every 100 people (70 to 100%) who used the cream at least once daily had a very good response to it.

Imiquimod is usually used to treat genital warts. But it has now been approved in the UK for the treatment of superficial BCC's that measure up to 2 cm across. You can have it for BCC on your chest or back, neck, arms or legs (including hands and feet) if your doctor feels it is a more appropriate treatment than surgery. Imiquimod has not yet been approved for nodular BCC.

 

The benefits of using imiquimod cream

Surgery usually cures most people with non melanoma skin cancer. But it can cause scarring. This can change the way you look. Some people find that a scar can affect their self esteem. Imiquimod cream does not cause scarring so has the advantage of a better appearance after treatment. And you can put it on yourself at home. Home application means that you

  • Avoid repeated trips to a cancer centre
  • Don't have to have an operation
 

Side effects of imiquimod

For basal cell skin cancer, you usually put imiquimod on to the affected area once a day, 5 days a week for 6 weeks. Your doctor or nurse will tell you how to do this. 

Some people find that their skin gets red and sore in the area. This usually starts within 3 to 5 days. Let your doctor or nurse know if this happens. Some people have a lot of scabbing and crusting, which can be uncomfortable. Your skin may also change colour afterwards. This may go back to normal after a few months or in rare cases may be permanent. Your hair may also fall out in the treatment area.

In a few people more serious skin reactions can occur. These can cause a very sore area, or spots on the skin, as well as itching, a high temperature (fever), feeling generally unwell, achy joints, eyesight changes, and burning, painful or itchy eyes and mouth sores. If you have this, stop using the cream and tell your doctor immediately.

Some people find that they have lower numbers of blood cells while using imiquimod. This can make you more likely to get infections, can make you bruise more easily, and can make you feel tired.

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Updated: 11 September 2014