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What are Immunosuppressants?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 06, 2024
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Immunosuppressants are medications which have a depressive effect on the immune system. They slow or block immune system functions, using a variety of different mechanisms. Such drugs are prescribed to people who are at risk of experiencing inappropriate immune responses which could endanger their health. A specialist such as a rheumatologist is usually in charge of immunosuppressive therapy and monitors the patient for any signs of complications.

The classic reason to prescribe immunosuppressants is in the treatment of a patient who is preparing for or has undergone an organ transplant. Even when an organ donor is a good match for the patient, the body can recognize the organ as foreign, and the immune system may begin to attack it. This is not desirable, as it will compromise the function of the organ and could lead to transplant rejection, in which the transplanted organ fails to take. Immunosuppressants are used to prevent the immune system from attacking a transplanted organ. When used in this context, the drugs may be known as anti-rejection drugs.

Another reason to prescribe immunosuppressive drugs is because a patient has an autoimmune condition such as Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, alopecia areata, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, or severe eczema. In these cases, the patient's body is attacking itself because the immune system has become confused, and immunosuppressants can be used to moderate the immune response to reduce the damage to the patient's body and slow the progress of the disease when other measures are not effective.

Many immunosuppressants work by inhibiting the inflammatory response, with corticosteroids being a well known and widely used example of such drugs. Other drugs may inhibit the activation of T-cells to blunt immune reactions, and some can interfere with cell division at a targeted site in the body. New immunosuppressive drugs are periodically developed and released by pharmaceutical companies, and patients may take a mixture of such drugs or periodically change their drug regimens.

When someone is on immunosuppressants, she or he is very vulnerable to infection. It is critical that the patient avoid exposure to infectious agents, including diseases caught by family members. While on the drugs, the patient may have a list of recommendations which need to be followed, including recommendations for family members such as not receiving live vaccines which could result in passing organisms to the patient. It is important to contact a doctor at the first signs of infection, such as fever, swelling, and redness.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By John57 — On Dec 05, 2011

@julies - Sorry to hear about your rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. I am very well aware of how auto immune diseases can affect your life, as I have systemic lupus erythematosus. Most people just refer to this as 'lupus'.

When your own immune system turns on you and begins attacking your own body, it can really play havoc with things.

What makes it even more frustrating is that not much advanced research has been made in this area. Many doctors I have seen don't always know the best way to treat this.

I have been on steroids immunosuppression for several years, and even though there are side effects, it is better than being in pain and constant fatigue all the time.

Staying as active as possible and keeping a positive mind set have seemed to help me more than anything.

I decided a long time ago, I could either sit around and feel sorry for myself, or get out and enjoy as much life as I can. It isn't always easy, but it sure beats the alternatives.

By julies — On Dec 05, 2011

I have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and so far, have been able to stay away from taking any immunosuppressive agents.

Chances are, if the disease continue to progress, I will be prescribed something like this in the future. I have been doing quite a bit of research on them, and have heard both positive and negative things.

What I can understand, is when you get to a certain point where you can't stand the pain anymore. Or it is too difficult to continue on with your normal activities of daily living.

At this point, I would be willing to try some corticosteroids immunosuppression to get relief from these symptoms.

This disease runs in my family, and I have seen the devastating effects it can have on someone. I am trying to do everything to avoid something like this, but have also seen them improve the quality of life in some of my family members.

By turquoise — On Dec 04, 2011

@ddljohn-- No, immunosuppressants are used for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases as well. Rheumatoid arthritis actually happens when the immune system starts attacking the joints and tissues. So when other weaker medications don't give results, doctors often prescribe immunosuppressants.

My father used azathioprine for several years to treat rheumatoid arthritis when it got really worse. I remember him having some nausea from it but it went pretty well for the most part. He did catch colds and flu a lot, but we always made sure that he got his flu shot every year and that helped.

By ddljohn — On Dec 04, 2011

I understand how immunosuppressants help with organ transplants, but how does it help with something like rheumatoid arthritis?

My grandmother said that her doctor has prescribed a medication called azathioprine for her, which is apparently an immunosuppresssant. I thought that rheumatoid arthritis has to do with the infection and inflammation of bone and joint tissue. So I don't understand how drugs for immunosuppression can help this.

The other issue is that my grandmother is over 70 years old now. Old people already tend to suffer from a weak immune system. So I don't think it's a good idea for her to be using immunosuppressants.

Has anyone taken immunosuppressants for rheumotoid arhtritis? Did it help? What were the side effects?

By discographer — On Dec 03, 2011

When an organ transplant has taken place, how long does that individual need to take immunosuppressants for?

I'm curious because recently on the news, I saw a woman who had received a kidney transplant and six months after the surgery, her body had rejected the kidney. They were looking for another donor to try once again.

I'm guessing that she had not rejected the kidney in the first six months because of immunosuppressants. But if this is the case, how long does someone who has had a donor transplant need to take immunosuppressants for?

Does taking immunosuppressants trick the patient and doctors into thinking that the body has accepted the new organ when it actually has not?

By cloudel — On Dec 03, 2011

@Oceana – Maybe by the time you need a transplant, science will have perfected the technique for growing a kidney from cells of your own kidney. I have been reading that this is in the works.

How awesome would it be if no one had to worry with immunosuppressants ever again? I have heard that they make your face and neck swell and make you grow excessive amounts of body hair. To a woman, this is an absolute horror.

Of course, given the choice between dying or looking hideous, I would choose to live unattractive. I just hope that the organ growth study succeeds in its purpose. Then, we wouldn't have to worry about organ rejection at all.

By wavy58 — On Dec 02, 2011

My friend has five children, and one of them recently had a liver transplant and is on an immunosuppressant. Keeping him separated from the rest of the family whenever anyone has a cold is very difficult.

When you have that many people living under one roof, you share sicknesses inevitably. She gets the same things her kids come down with, and she is the only one who can take care of her immunocompromised child.

When an illness is going around the house, he has to stay in the bedroom with a bathroom in it. My friend puts on a mask and gloves before going in to him, and none of the other children are allowed in the room.

By Oceana — On Dec 01, 2011

There are several clinical trials going on now to monitor immunosuppression and kidney transplants. I have a kidney condition that may cause me to need a transplant one day in the future, and I have been participating in a clinical trial for a drug to treat my condition. While I was at the clinic, a researcher was telling me about several people who have had transplants and are enrolled in a study involving immunosuppressants not yet on the market.

These drugs are causing mixed results. Some are more promising than others. Every person handles them differently, but I'm sure that the drug that elicits the most positive responses and the least serious side effects will be the one approved by the FDA.

I am glad that studies like these are currently underway. I may not need a new kidney for twenty or thirty years, so maybe by then, a better type of immunosuppressant will be available to me.

By kylee07drg — On Dec 01, 2011

Immunosuppressants helped my friend with Crohn's disease. It is a condition that makes a person's life absolutely miserable, and before he started taking the drugs, he had trouble functioning.

He had a ton of intestinal pain. Diarrhea would hit him without a warning, and he would have to excuse himself from social situations and run to the bathroom. Often, he would just stay home instead of socializing because he was embarrassed about this.

He lost a scary amount of weight because of his illness. That's when his doctor decided to try an immunosuppressant. The drug got his inflammation under control and lessened his pain. He slowly gained the weight back, and he also started going out with friends again.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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