Antirheumatic Drugs

Antirheumatic Drugs



Antirheumatic drugs are drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.


Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive form of arthritis that has devastating effects on joints and general health. It is classified as an auto-immune disease, because the disease is caused by the body's own immune system acting against the body itself. Symptoms include painful, stiff, swollen joints, fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
In recent years, there has been a change in attitude concerning the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Physicians now use Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) early in the history of the disease and are less inclined to wait for crippling stages before resorting to the more potent drugs. Fuller understanding of the side-effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) has also stimulated reliance on other types of antirheumatic drugs.


The major classes of antirheumatic drugs include:
  • Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs. Drugs belonging to this class bring symptomatic relief of both inflammation and pain, but have a limited effect on the progressive bone and cartilage loss associated with rheumatoid arthritis. They act by slowing the body's production of prostaglandins. Common NSAIDs include: ibuprofen (Motrin, Nuprin or Advil), naproxen (Naprosyn, Aleve) and indomethacin (Indocin).
  • Corticosteroids. These drugs are very powerful antiinflammatory agents. They are the synthetic analogs of cortisone, produced by the body. Corticosteroids are used to reduce inflammation and suppress activity of the immune system. The most commonly prescribed are prednisone and dexamethasone.
  • Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs). DMARDs influence the disease process itself and do not only treat symptoms, hence their name. DMARDs also have anti-inflammatory effects, and most were borrowed from the treatment of other diseases, such as cancer and malaria. Antimalarials DMARDs include chloroquine (Aralen) and hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil). Powerful DMARDs include: methotrexate (Rheumatrex), sulfasalazine, cyclosporine, azathioprine (Imuran) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), azathioprine, sulfasalazine, penicillamine, and organic gold compounds such as aurothioglucose (Solganol), gold sodium thiomalate (Aurolate) and auranofin (Ridaura).
  • Slow-Acting Antirheumatic Drugs (SAARDs). SAARDs are a special class of DMARDs and the effect of these drugs is slow acting and not so quickly apparent as that of the NSAIDs. Examples are hydroxychloroquine and aurothioglucose.
  • Immunosuppresive cytotoxic drugs. This class of drugs is used if treatment with NSAIDs and SAARDs have no effect. Immunosuppresive drugs have a stabilizing effect on the immune system. Since the inflammation associated with chronic arthritis is due to malfunctions of the immune system, use of this class of drugs has been shown to be beneficial for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis as well. Examples are: methotrexate, mechlorethamine, cyclophosphamide, chlorambucil, and azathioprine.

Key terms

Anti-inflammatory drugs — A class of drugs that lower inflammation and that includes NSAIDs and corticosteroids.
Arthritis — A painful condition that involves inflammation of one or more joints.
Conception — The union of egg and sperm to form a fetus.
Corticosteroids — A class of drugs that are synthetic versions of the cortisone produced by the body. They rank among the most powerful anti-inflammatory agents.
Cortisone — Glucocorticoid produced by the adrenal cortex in response to stress. Cortisone is a steroid and has anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties.
Cytotoxic drugs — Drugs that function by destroying cells.
Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) — A class of antirheumatic drugs, including chloroquine, methotrexate, cyclosporine, and gold compounds, that influence the disease process itself and do not only treat its symptoms.
Immune response — Physiological response of the body controlled by the immune system that involves the production of antibodies to fight off specific foreign substances or agents (antigens).
Immune system — The sum of the defence mechanisms of the body that protects it against foreign substances and organisms causing infection.
Immunosuppresive cytotoxic drugs — A class of drugs that function by destroying cells and suppressing the immune response.
Immunosuppressive — Any agent that suppresses the immune response of an individual.
Inflammation — A process occurring in body tissues, characterized by increased circulation and the accumulation of white blood cells. Inflammation also occurs in disorders such as arthritis and causes harmful effects.
Inflammatory — Pertaining to inflammation.
Methotrexate — A drug that interferes with cell growth and is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis as well as various types of cancer. Side-effects may include mouth sores, digestive upsets, skin rashes, and hair loss.
Non steroidal — Not containing steroids or cortisone. Usually refers to a class of drugs called Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID).
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) — A class of drugs that is used to relieve pain, and symptoms of inflammation, such as ibuprofen and ketoprofen.
Osteoarthritis — A form of arthritis that occurs mainly in older people and involves the gradual degeneration of the cartilage of the joints.
Prostaglandins — Prostaglandins are produced by the body and are responsible for inflammation features, such as swelling, pain, stiffness, redness and warmth.

Recommended dosage

Recommended dosage depends on the type of drug. The prescribing physician or the pharmacist provide information for the correct dosage. The drugs must be taken exactly as directed.
When taking methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis, it should be taken only once or twice a week as prescribed, not every day. Taking it every day can lead to a fatal overdose.


Many antirheumatic drugs such as, for example, azathioprine (Imuran) and methotrexate (Rheumatrex), are very powerful drugs. They are usually prescribed in severe cases, when all other treatments have failed. Thus, they may have serious side effects, so it is important to be monitored closely by a physician while taking any of these drugs.

Side effects

Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) may cause vision problems. Anyone taking it should see an ophthalmologist (a physician who specializes in treating eyes) for a thorough eye examination every six months.
Methotrexate and penicillamine may cause birth defects. Women taking these drugs must stop taking them during pregnancy and for several months before a planned pregnancy. Methotrexate may also cause lung damage or fertility problems and should not be taken by anyone with serious kidney or liver disease or by anyone who drinks alcohol.
Azathioprine may cause birth defects if either the man or woman is using it at the time of conception. Anyone who uses this drug and is sexually active should consult with a physician about an effective birth control method.
Other common side effects of antirheumatic drugs include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, dizziness, loss of appetite, headache, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills, and mouth sores. A variety of other side effects may occur. Anyone who has unusual symptoms while taking antirheumatic drugs should notify the treating physician.
The gold compounds may cause serious blood problems by reducing the ability of the blood forming organs to produce blood cells. These drugs may decrease the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, or both. Patients taking these drugs should have regular blood counts.
Entanercept (Enbrel) may also cause blood problems, and some patients who received this drug have developed eye problems and multiple sclerosis. It is not certain whether these reactions were caused by entanercept, but multiple sclerosis has been seen in patients taking other drugs which act against tumor necrosis factor.


Antirheumatic drugs may interact with a variety of other medicines or other antirheumatic drugs. When this happens, the effects of one or both of the drugs may change, or the risk of side effects may be greater. Anyone who takes this type of drug should inform the prescribing physician about any other medication he or she is taking. Among the drugs that may interact with antirheumatic drugs are phenytoin (Dilantin), aspirin, sulfa drugs such as Bactrim and Gantrisin, tetracycline and some other antibiotics and cimetidine (Tagamet). NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) are also known to interact with other classes of antirheumatic drugs.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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