Doctor Decoded: What Are Immunosuppressants?

Preventing organ rejection isn’t their only use.

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Your doctor has suggested using immunosuppressants to treat your illness. What’s that?

If you’ve recently received an organ transplant or if you have a chronic autoimmune condition, your specialist might have mentioned the possibility of putting you on this type of medication. Here’s what they actually do in your body.

How Immunosuppressants Work

Immunosuppressants are medicines that weaken (suppress) your immune system—hence the name. Why would you intentionally weaken your immune system? Well, in certain cases, people may have an immune system that is misbehaving or overreacting. These medications help keep the immune system in check.

For example, immunosuppressants can aid in stopping your immune system from rejecting an organ transplant. Naturally, your body may identify the new organ as “foreign” and attack it, so suppressing the immune system can help your body accept the transplant.

Similarly, these medications can help prevent a flare-up from an autoimmune disease, which is when the immune system mistakenly attacks your own healthy organs. A few of these diseases can include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Psoriasis
  • Lupus

These medications can relieve overall symptoms of these diseases, such as pain, stiffness, and inflammation. Plus, they can also help prevent organ damage, joint damage, and other complications.

Immunosuppressants come in different forms. You can take some as oral pills, but others are delivered through an IV. You may need to take immunosuppressants for a short period of time (such as after an organ transplant) or indefinitely (to treat a chronic illness).

Risks When Taking Immunosuppressants

As you might imagine, there are some risks involved when you weaken your immune system. Notably, immunosuppressants can increase the risk of infections. Plus, any infection you do get might be harder to treat or get rid of. However, for many people with autoimmune diseases, the benefits of these medications are often worth this risk of infections.

If you have more questions about immunosuppressants, talk to your doctor. They can tell you if these medications are appropriate for you and your condition, and you can weigh the pros and cons of this kind of treatment.