Overview of Immunosuppressant Drugs
drugs are a class of drugs that suppress or reduce the strength of the body’s
immune system. They are also called anti-rejection drugs. One of the primary
uses of immunosuppressant drugs is to lower the body’s ability to reject a
transplanted organ, such as a liver, heart or kidney.
What Do the Drugs Treat?
everyone who receives an organ transplant has to take immunosuppressant drugs. The
body recognizes a transplanted organ as a foreign mass. This triggers a
response by the body’s immune system to attack it.
weakening the immune system, immunosuppressant drugs decrease the body’s reaction
to the foreign organ. The drugs allow the transplanted organ to remain healthy
and free from damage.
drugs also are used to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus. An autoimmune
disorder is a disease process in which the body attacks its own tissue. Lupus
results from just such a misdirected activity of the body’s own immune system.
By suppressing this reaction, immunosuppressant drugs can help control the
impact of the disease on the body.
diseases treated with immunosuppressant drugs include:
disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract
areata (patchy hair loss)
What Drugs Are Used?
Immunosuppressant drugs can be classified
into four categories:
- azathioprine (Imuran)
- cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune, SangCya)
- monoclonal antibodies, which include: basiliximab
(Simulect), daclizumab (Zenapax), and muromonab (Orthoclone OKT3)
- corticosteroids such as prednisone (Deltasone,
Most patients are prescribed
drugs from more than one category.
How Are the Drugs Administered?
All immunosuppressant drugs are
only available with a prescription from a physician. They can be administered
as tablets, capsules, liquids, and injections. A physician determines the best
course of treatment using a combination of drugs. The goal of immunosuppressant
therapy is to find the course that will prevent rejection and have the least harmful
A person taking immunosuppressant
drugs must take them exactly as prescribed every day. Even the slightest change
from the medication regimen can trigger an organ rejection. After missing a dose,
it’s important to contact a physician immediately.
The immunosuppressant drugs in a
patient’s regimen are adjusted and may eventually be reduced. As the risk of organ
rejection lessens over time, the need for these medications may decrease.
However, most people who have had a transplant will have to take at least one
immunosuppressant drug for their lifetime.
Regular blood tests are used to monitor
the effectiveness of the drugs and the need for adjustments.
What Are the Risks?
When immunosuppressant drugs
weaken the immune system, the body becomes less resistant to infection. Any
infections that develop will be more difficult to treat because of this. These
drugs also increase the likelihood of uncontrolled bleeding due to injury or
People taking immunosuppressant
drugs should be careful to avoid catching an infection. Precautions include:
- frequent hand washing
- avoiding sports in which injuries occur
- extra care when using sharp objects such as knives
- avoiding close contact with people who have
infections or colds
A physician should be notified
immediately when the following symptoms occur:
- fever or chills
- pain in the lower back, on the sides
- pain or difficulty urinating
- unusual bruising or bleeding
- blood in your urine
- stools that are bloody or black
Immunosuppressant drugs can cause
adverse reactions and birth defects. Physicians should be made aware of the
following conditions before immunosuppressant drugs are prescribed:
- shingles or chickenpox
- kidney or liver disease
- intestinal problems
What Are the Side Effects?
The most significant side effect
of immunosuppressant drugs is an increased risk of infection. The drugs can
also put you at a higher risk for cancer because the immune system also
protects you from this disease.
Other, less serious side effects
can include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, increased hair growth, and hand
trembling. These effects typically subside as the body adjusts to the
The following side effects
indicate the need for immediate attention:
- a feeling of being unusually tired or weak
- fever or chills
- frequent urination
Immunosuppressant drugs can
interact with many other medications. This can cause dangerous effects in which
the immunosuppressants may lose or even increase their effect. The primary
caregiver should be made aware of any prescription or over-the-counter
medications their patients are taking while on immunosuppressant therapy.