Glatiramer acetate is a multiple sclerosis (MS) drug. Sold under the brand name Copaxone, it’s a medicated injection specifically designed for relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).

Glatiramer acetate is a type of immunomodulator that helps prevent the body’s immune system from attacking its own healthy nerve cells. The drug activates suppressor T cells, which act against the immune system. In MS, they cause damage in the spinal cord and brain.

Glatiramer acetate helps prevent relapses in MS. It also helps prevent attack symptoms that affect basic brain functions and muscle use. There may be long-term benefits of the injection, but you should be aware of the potential hazards before taking this drug.

Understanding Immediate Use

Many neurologists prefer to wait and see how a patient progresses, before prescribing injections after a single attack. This is due to the potential side effects of other MS medications. However, this is not the case with glatiramer acetate, which is designed to help with mild MS.

Since the purpose of the drug is to prevent relapses, your doctor may recommend the injections immediately following an MS diagnosis. An MS diagnosis requires a clinical exam, as well as an MRI.

New Dosage Considerations

Your first dose of the injection is administered at a physician’s office. In the past, the standard dosage for glatiramer acetate was 20 mg every day. As of January 2014, patients have the option to double the dose (40 mg) three times a week instead.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed a one-year study that showed participants had fewer side effects when taking a higher dose less frequently. It’s important to discuss dosage with your doctor, along with the potential benefits of switching doses. And remember, you still have the option to take daily 20 mg injections.

There are other differences between the doses to consider. First, each 40 mg injection should be 48 hours apart or longer. The 20 mg doses should be taken 24 hours apart, around the same time of day every day. Also, you should not mix dosage amount routines. Know how to tell the dosages apart. The 20 mg dose of the injection comes with a white plunger. The doubled 40 mg dose has a blue one.

Use each syringe only once. Sometimes extra medication remains in the syringe. Don’t reuse it.

Effects After First Dose

One of the reasons your doctor will administer your first injection is because they’ll need to watch for side effects. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, about 13 percent of patients experience side effects after the first dose, such as:

  • anxiety
  • flushing
  • breathing difficulties
  • chest pain and rapid heart rate

Generally, these symptoms ease after 15 minutes. You may experience minor versions of these side effects after each injection. Report symptoms that worsen to your doctor right away.

Common Side Effects

Many patients experience mild side effects from glatiramer acetate. Most of these clear up within a few weeks of starting the medication. Consider calling your doctor if the symptoms worsen or don’t go away.

Among the most common side effects are:

  • skin rashes
  • runny nose
  • weight gain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • body pain and weakness
  • depression
  • skin color changes

Other side effects associated with glatiramer acetate are similar to symptoms of MS. The difference is that medication side effects are persistent, and may worsen. Examples include:

  • excessive fatigue
  • tremors
  • shaking hands
  • speaking difficulties
  • joint pain
  • confusion

Signs of an Allergic Reaction

Allergic reactions have been reported with glatiramer acetate. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing you’re allergic to the medicine before taking it. You should tell your doctor if you have allergies to other medications or have had bad reactions to other immunomodulators. A large, red bump at the injection site may be one sign of an allergic reaction. Other signs include:

  • hives
  • breathing difficulties
  • face and body swelling
  • chest pain
  • dizziness

Long-Term Risks

Many RRMS patients prefer glatiramer acetate over other types of immunomodulators because the side effects are milder. However, as with other MS drugs, long-term risks are associated with these injections. Glatiramer acetate increases your risk for developing cancers. It can also suppress your immune system, making you more prone to infections.

Glatiramer acetate is beneficial for many RRMS patients looking to prevent future MS attacks. It can also help reduce the symptoms that affect your daily mobility. Still, the injections aren’t right for everyone. Discuss all MS medication options with your doctor. Call your doctor immediately if you experience unusual side effects after using glatiramer acetate.