Immunosuppressant drugs are a class of drugs that suppress, or reduce, the strength of the body’s immune system.
Some of these drugs are used to make the body less likely to reject a transplanted organ, such as a liver, heart, or kidney. These drugs are called antirejection drugs.
Other immunosuppressant drugs are often used to treat autoimmune disorders such as lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
If your doctor has prescribed an immunosuppressant medication for you, here’s what to know about what these drugs do, how they work, and how they might make you feel. The following information will tell you what to expect when taking an immunosuppressant drug and what it could do for you.
Immunosuppressant drugs are used to treat autoimmune diseases.
With an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks the body’s own tissue. Because immunosuppressant drugs weaken the immune system, they suppress this reaction. This helps reduce the impact of the autoimmune disease on the body.
Autoimmune diseases treated with immunosuppressant drugs include:
Almost everyone who receives an organ transplant must take immunosuppressant drugs. This is because your immune system sees a transplanted organ as a foreign object. As a result, your immune system attacks the organ as it would attack any foreign cell. This can cause severe damage and lead to needing the organ removed.
Immunosuppressant drugs weaken your immune system to reduce your body’s reaction to the foreign organ. The drugs allow the transplanted organ to remain healthy and free from damage.
There are several different types of immunosuppressant drugs. The drug or drugs you’ll be prescribed depend on whether you have an organ transplant, an autoimmune disorder, or another condition.
Many people who receive immunosuppressant drugs are prescribed medications from more than one of these categories.
- prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone)
- budesonide (Entocort EC)
- prednisolone (Millipred)
Janus kinase inhibitors
- tofacitinib (Xeljanz)
- cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune, SangCya)
- tacrolimus (Astagraf XL, Envarsus XR, Prograf)
- sirolimus (Rapamune)
- everolimus (Afinitor, Zortress)
- azathioprine (Azasan, Imuran)
- leflunomide (Arava)
- mycophenolate (CellCept, Myfortic)
- abatacept (Orencia)
- adalimumab (Humira)
- anakinra (Kineret)
- certolizumab (Cimzia)
- etanercept (Enbrel)
- golimumab (Simponi)
- infliximab (Remicade)
- ixekizumab (Taltz)
- natalizumab (Tysabri)
- rituximab (Rituxan)
- secukinumab (Cosentyx)
- tocilizumab (Actemra)
- ustekinumab (Stelara)
- vedolizumab (Entyvio)
- basiliximab (Simulect)
- daclizumab (Zinbryta)
All immunosuppressant drugs are available only by a prescription from your doctor.
Immunosuppressant drugs come as tablets, capsules, liquids, and injections. Your doctor will decide the best drug forms and treatment regimen for you.
They may prescribe a combination of drugs. The goal of immunosuppressant therapy is to find the treatment plan that will suppress your immune system while having the fewest, least harmful side effects.
If you take immunosuppressant drugs, you must take them exactly as prescribed. if you have an autoimmune disorder, a regimen change can cause a flare-up of your condition. If you’re an organ recipient, even the slightest change from the medication regimen can trigger an organ rejection. No matter why you’re being treated, if you miss a dose, be sure to call your doctor right away.
During your treatment with immunosuppressant drugs, you’ll have regular blood tests. These tests help your doctor monitor how effective the drugs are and whether dosage changes are needed. The tests will also help your doctor know whether the drugs cause side effects for you.
If you have an autoimmune disease, your doctor may adjust your dosage based on how your condition responds to the medication.
If you’ve received an organ transplant, your doctor may eventually reduce your dosage. This is because the risk of organ rejection lessens over time, so the need for these medications may decrease.
However, most people who have had a transplant will need to take at least one immunosuppressant drug throughout their lifetime.
Side effects vary greatly for the many different immunosuppressant drugs available. To find out the side effects you may be at risk for, ask your doctor or pharmacist about the effects of your particular drug.
However, all immunosuppressant drugs carry the serious risk of infection. When an immunosuppressant drug weakens your immune system, your body becomes less resistant to infection. That means they make you more likely to get infections. It also means that any infections get will be harder to treat.
If you have any of these symptoms of infection, call your doctor right away:
- fever or chills
- pain in the side of your lower back
- trouble urinating
- pain while urinating
- frequent urination
- unusual tiredness or weakness
Before you start taking an immunosuppressant drug, be sure to tell your doctor about all medications you take. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as vitamins and supplements. Your doctor can tell you about the possible drug interactions that your immunosuppressant medication might cause. Like side effects, the risk of drug interactions depends on the specific drug you take.
Immunosuppressant drugs can cause problems for people with certain health conditions. Tell your doctor if you have any of these conditions before you start to take immunosuppressants:
- allergy to the specific drug
- history of shingles or chickenpox
- kidney or liver disease
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Some of these drugs can cause birth defects, while others carry milder risks during pregnancy and breastfeeding. In any case, if you’re planning to become pregnant, talk to your doctor before taking an immunosuppressant drug. Your doctor can tell you about the risks of the specific drug you might be taking.
If you get pregnant while taking an immunosuppressant, tell your doctor right away.
Immunosuppressant medications can help people with autoimmune disorders or organ transplants control their body’s immune response. While helpful, these drugs are also powerful. You should know all you can about them if your doctor prescribes them for you.
If you have questions, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist. Your questions might include:
- Am I at high risk of any side effects from immunosuppressant medications?
- What should I do if I think I’m having a side effect?
- Am I taking any medications that might interact with my immunosuppressant drugs?
- What symptoms of organ rejection should I watch for?
- What should I do if I get a cold while taking this drug?
- How long will I have to take this medication?
- Do I need to take any other kind of medication to treat my autoimmune disease?