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Table of contents
OverviewUnderstanding Autoimmune Diseases and the Role of ImmunosuppressantsOrgan Transplants and the Need for Immunosuppressant DrugsCommon Side Effects and Considerations of Immunosuppressant DrugsIndividualized Treatment Approaches and Follow-Up CareConclusionSources
Navin Khosla NowPatientGreen tick
Medically reviewed by Navin Khosla, BPharm and written by Rajive Patel, BPharm - Updated on 18 Jan 2024
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Immunosuppressant drugs play a crucial role in managing various medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases and organ transplants. By suppressing or modulating the immune system, these medications help prevent organ rejection and control the overactive immune response seen in autoimmune disorders. However, it’s important to understand how these drugs work, their uses, potential side effects, and considerations before starting treatment. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about immunosuppressant drugs.

Understanding Autoimmune Diseases and the Role of Immunosuppressants

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues in the body instead of protecting your body from attack from infections. This dysregulation of the immune response leads to chronic inflammation and tissue damage.

Immunosuppressant drugs are a cornerstone of treatment for autoimmune diseases, as they help suppress the overactive immune system, preventing further damage to cells and inflammation. Some common autoimmune diseases treated with immunosuppressants include inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, alopecia areata, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Immunosuppressant drugs minimize the symptoms of these autoimmune diseases and may even cause remission, so you have no signs of the disease.

Ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the large intestine and causes inflammation and ulcers in the inner lining of the colon.

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It causes inflammation in your digestive tract, which may lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, tiredness, weight loss and malnutrition.

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease has some similar symptoms to ulcerative colitis, but does not cause ulcers or inflammation. Irritable bowel syndrome is actually a problem with the muscles in the intestines.

Alopecia areata

Alopecia areata occurs when your immune system attacks hair follicles causing hair loss. Hair loss can occur from any part of the body. Alopecia areata however, usually affects the head and face.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease that primarily affects the joints. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, the lining of the joints. Immunosuppressant drugs, such as corticosteroids, methotrexate, and biologics, are commonly prescribed to manage RA and reduce joint inflammation.


Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a complex autoimmune disease that can affect multiple organs and systems in the body. Immunosuppressant medications, including corticosteroids, antimalarials, and biologics, are used to control the immune response and manage the symptoms of lupus.


Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition characterized by red, scaly patches on the skin. It is caused by an overactive immune response that accelerates the growth of skin cells. Immunosuppressant drugs, such as cyclosporine, methotrexate, and biologics, are prescribed to manage psoriasis and reduce skin inflammation.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis occurs when your immune response causes inflammation in your joints as well as the overproduction of skin cells. Both genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a role in this immune system response.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. It occurs when the immune system attacks the protective covering of nerve fibers, leading to communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Immunosuppressant medications, such as interferon beta and monoclonal antibodies, are used to modulate the immune response and slow down the progression of MS.

Organ Transplants and the Need for Immunosuppressant Drugs

Organ transplantation is a life-saving procedure that involves replacing a diseased or failing organ with a healthy one from a donor. However, the immune system recognizes the transplanted organ as foreign and may mount an immune response to reject it. Immunosuppressant drugs are essential in preventing organ rejection and ensuring the long-term success of the transplant.

Importance of Immunosuppression in Organ Transplants

When a person undergoes an organ transplant, the immune system recognizes the transplanted organ as non-self and activates an immune response to eliminate it. Immunosuppressant drugs are used to suppress this immune response, allowing the transplanted organ to function properly and preventing rejection.

Types of Immunosuppressant Drugs Used in Organ Transplants

Various types of immunosuppressant drugs are used in organ transplantation to achieve the desired level of immune suppression. These drugs can be categorized into different classes based on their mechanisms of action. Commonly used immunosuppressant drug classes include corticosteroids, calcineurin inhibitors, mTOR inhibitors, and antimetabolites.


Corticosteroids (glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids) are a class of steroid hormone naturally released by the adrenal cortex in the body. Corticosteroids, such as prednisone and prednisolone, are potent anti-inflammatory drugs that suppress the immune system’s activity. They are often used in high doses immediately after transplantation and gradually tapered down over time.

Corticosteroids suppress cell-mediated immunity and have a broad spectrum of anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties. This includes preventing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines including interleukin and TNF-alpha by attaching to corticosteroid responsive elements on DNA. This reduction in the production of cytokine reduces the growth of T cells. This decrease in the growth of T cells decreases the production of IL-2, further decreasing the growth of T cells. Corticosteroids also block the humoral immunity, causing B cells to release less IL-2 and IL-2 receptors. This reduces B cell clone expansion and the production of antibodies.

Calcineurin Inhibitors

Calcineurin inhibitors, such as cyclosporine (Gengraf, Neoral or Sandimmune) and tacrolimus (Envarsus XR or Protopic), block specific enzymes that stimulate T-cells. T-cells are white blood cells that normally fight infection. These drugs are commonly used in combination with other immunosuppressants to prevent organ rejection.

mTOR Inhibitors

mTOR inhibitors, such as sirolimus (a Streptomyces hygroscopicus macrocyclic fermentation agent) and everolimus, work by inhibiting the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), a protein involved in T and B cell proliferation and immune response by reducing interleukin-2 production. These drugs are often used as maintenance therapy to prevent organ rejection. Sirolimus is particularly useful in the prevention of kidney transplant rejection.

Janus kinase inhibitors

Janus kinase inhibitors such as tofacitinib (Xeljanz) reduce inflammation by blocking the action of certain enzymes such as Janus kinases. They are classed as a type of immunomodulator.


Antimetabolites, such as azathioprine (Imuran) and mycophenolate mofetil (Cellcept), interfere with DNA synthesis and cell division, thereby suppressing the immune response. They are commonly used in combination with other immunosuppressants to achieve optimal immune suppression. Mycophenolate mofetil is used to help treat autoimmune hepatitis and rheumatology. Adverse effects of Azathioprine may include vomiting, dizziness, bone marrow suppression, diarrhea, rashes, fever, lymphoma and pancreatitis.


Adalimumab (Humira) and infliximab (Remicade) are classed as Biologics. Biologics are immunosuppressive agents made in the lab that will reduce your immune system’s response. Infliximab binds to the cytokine tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), preventing TNFα from binding to its receptor. TNFα is involved in the development of rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn disease. Infliximab, has been shown to have beneficial effects for the treatment of people with these inflammatory diseases.

Balancing Immunosuppression and the Risk of Infections

While immunosuppressant drugs are vital in preventing organ rejection, they also weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of infections. Finding the right balance between immune suppression and minimizing infection risk is crucial in the management of transplant recipients. Regular monitoring, vaccination protocols, and preventive measures are essential to minimize infection-related complications.

Common Side Effects and Considerations of Immunosuppressant Drugs

Immunosuppressant drugs can have various side effects and considerations that need to be taken into account before starting treatment. It’s important for patients and healthcare providers to be aware of these potential risks and make informed decisions.

Side Effects of Immunosuppressant Drugs

The side effects of immunosuppressant drugs can vary depending on the specific medication and individual factors. Common side effects include increased susceptibility to infections, gastrointestinal disturbances, skin rashes, hair loss, and changes in blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Regular monitoring and close communication with healthcare providers are necessary to manage these side effects effectively.

Long-Term Effects and Monitoring

Long-term use of immunosuppressant drugs may be necessary for some patients, especially those with chronic autoimmune diseases or organ transplants. However, these medications can have cumulative effects on various organ systems, including the kidneys, liver, and cardiovascular system. Regular monitoring of blood tests, imaging studies, and organ function is crucial to detect any potential complications early and adjust the treatment regimen accordingly.

Drug Interactions and Precautions

Immunosuppressant drugs can interact with other medications, including over-the-counter drugs, herbal supplements, and certain antibiotics. It’s essential to inform healthcare providers about all medications and supplements being taken to avoid potentially harmful drug interactions. Additionally, certain precautions, such as avoiding live vaccines and practicing good hygiene, should be followed to minimize infection risks while on immunosuppressant therapy.

Individualized Treatment Approaches and Follow-Up Care

The management of immunosuppressant therapy requires an individualized approach tailored to each patient’s specific needs and medical condition. Regular follow-up care and open communication with healthcare providers are essential for optimizing treatment outcomes and addressing any concerns or changes in the treatment plan.

Treatment Plan and Medication Regimen

The treatment plan for immunosuppressant therapy may involve a combination of different medications, including immunosuppressants, corticosteroids, and other supportive medications. The medication regimen will be tailored to the individual patient, taking into account factors such as the underlying condition, disease severity, and potential side effects.

Regular Monitoring and Blood Tests

Regular monitoring of blood tests, including immune function markers, medication levels, and organ function, is crucial to assess the effectiveness of immunosuppressant therapy and detect any potential complications. These monitoring parameters may vary depending on the specific medication and individual patient factors.

Lifestyle Modifications and Disease Management

In addition to medication, lifestyle modifications and disease management strategies play a vital role in optimizing treatment outcomes. This may include adopting a healthy diet, maintaining a regular exercise routine, managing stress, and adhering to any additional therapies or interventions recommended by healthcare providers.

Communication and Collaboration with Healthcare Providers

Open and regular communication with healthcare providers is essential throughout the course of immunosuppressant therapy. Patients should feel comfortable discussing any concerns, side effects, or changes in their condition with their healthcare team. Collaborative decision-making and shared decision-making empower patients to actively participate in their treatment plan.


Immunosuppressant drugs are powerful medications that play a critical role in managing autoimmune diseases and preventing organ rejection after transplantation. While these medications are effective in suppressing the immune response, they also come with potential risks and side effects. By understanding the uses, effects, and considerations of immunosuppressant drugs, patients and healthcare providers can work together to optimize treatment outcomes and ensure the best possible quality of life for individuals living with these conditions.



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NowPatient has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that all material is factually accurate, complete, and current. However, the knowledge and experience of a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought after instead of using the information in this page. Before taking any drug, you should always speak to your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider.

The information provided here about medications is subject to change and is not meant to include all uses, precautions, warnings, directions, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or negative effects. The absence of warnings or other information for a particular medication does not imply that the medication or medication combination is appropriate for all patients or for all possible purposes.

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