Severe SLE is treated with corticosteroids, also called steroids, which suppress the inflammatory process. Steroids can help relieve many of the complications and symptoms, including anemia and kidney involvement.
Oral prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone) is usually prescribed. Other drugs include methylprednisolone (Medrol, Solumedrol), hydrocortisone, and dexamethasone (Decadron).
Some people need to take oral prednisone for only a short time; others may require it for a long duration. An intravenous administration of methylprednisolone using "pulse" therapy for 3 days is proving useful for flare-ups in the joints. Combinations with other drugs, particularly immunosuppressants, may be beneficial.
Regimens vary widely, depending on the severity and location of the disease. Most patients with SLE can eventually function without prednisone, although some may have to choose between the long-term toxicity of corticosteroids and the complications of active disease.
Side Effects of Long-Term Oral Corticosteroids. Unfortunately, serious and even life-threatening complications have been associated with long-term steroid use. The bone-thinning condition osteoporosis is a common and particularly severe long-term side effect of prolonged steroid use. Medications that can prevent osteoporosis include calcium supplements, parathyroid hormone, alendronate risedronate, or hormone replacement therapy in post-menopausal women.
Other side effects associated with prolonged use of oral steroids include:
Withdrawal from Long-Term Use of Oral Corticosteroids. Long-term use of oral steroid medications suppresses secretion of natural steroid hormones by the adrenal glands. After withdrawal from these drugs, this so-called adrenal suppression persists and it can take the body a while (sometimes up to a year) to regain its ability to produce natural steroids again. A few cases of severe adrenal insufficiency have occurred when patients switched from oral to inhaled steroids, which, in rare cases, has resulted in death.
No one should stop taking any steroids without consulting a doctor first, and if steroids are withdrawn, regular follow-up monitoring is necessary. Patients should discuss with their doctors measures for preventing adrenal insufficiency during withdrawal, particularly during stressful times, when the risk increases.
Drugs known as immunosuppressants are often used, either alone or with corticosteroids for very active SLE, particularly when kidney or neurologic involvement or acute blood vessel inflammation is present. These drugs suppress the immune system by damaging cells that grow rapidly, including those that produce antibodies. About a third of patients take immunosuppressants at some point in the course of the disease.
Specific Immunosuppressants. The most common immunosuppressants are:
The most frequent side effects of immunosuppressants include:
Serious side effects of immunosuppressants include:
In general, immunosuppressants should not be used alone unless corticosteroids are ineffective or inappropriate. Grapefruit juice has an enzyme that may enhance the effects of some immunosuppressants.
Monoclonal Antibodies (MAbs). A MAb is a laboratory-made protein that targets specific immune cells, such as B cells. B cell over-activation has been identified as a key component of the lupus disease process. Promising MAbs in development for SLE treatment include epratuzumab and belimumab.
Intravenous Immunoglobulins. Intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIG) are sometimes used for patients who have not responded to other SLE treatments. Immunoglobulins are antibodies produced by immune system B-lymphocyte cells. IVIG is a blood product that contains these antibodies.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a natural steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands and converted into estrogen and androgen. The synthetic equivalent of DHEA, prasterone (Prestara), is being investigated as a potential treatment for SLE. Prasterone is still in the drug development stage and it is not clear when, or if, it will be commercially available.
Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation. Some patients with severe lupus have achieved at least short-term remission after undergoing autologous transplantation of stem cells and high-dose drug therapy to suppress the damaging immune factors. Stem cells are the early forms for all blood cells in the body. An autologous transplant is one in which marrow or blood cells used are the patient's own. (The advantage to an autologous transplant is that the patient's own cells are not at risk for rejection by the immune system.)
Phototherapy. A promising treatment uses ultraviolet A-1 (UVA-1) radiation, long UVA wave lengths that do not promote sunburn and may actually block inflammatory immune factors. Small studies have suggested that UVA-1 phototherapy may have some benefits for lowering disease activity in SLE.
Plasmapheresis. Plasmapheresis is a process in which the fluid part of the blood, called plasma, is removed from blood cells. The procedure involves first taking blood from the patient. The plasma, which contains the inflammatory antibodies and other immunologically active substances, is discarded and replaced with other fluids. The blood is then returned. Plasmapheresis is not useful for routine management of patients but may have some benefits for patients who do not respond to standard treatments or in specific cases, such as lupus patients with hemolytic anemia.
Treatments for Some Complications of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
Infections, Inflammation, or Hypertension in the Lungs
Preventive Measures. Immunizations with inactive viruses and preventive antibiotics should be considered for patients with SLE who are at high risk for infection.
Treating Infections. Lung infections need to be treated aggressively with antibiotics. However, antibiotic drugs such as penicillin or the sulfa drugs may cause sensitivity rashes that can be confused with SLE rash.
Treating Lung Inflammation. While inflammation of the lung (pneumonitis) resembles pneumonia, it is not an infection but is a result of the autoimmune process. This condition needs to be treated with corticosteroids or immunosuppressants, but only if the doctor is sure infection is not present.
Treating Pulmonary Hypertension. Pulmonary hypertension is very serious. Drugs known as prostacylins -- which include epoprostenol, iloprost, and treprostinil -- are standard drugs. Bosentan (Tracleer) is the first oral drug approved for pulmonary hypertension. An inhaled iloprost formulation (Ventavis) was approved in 2004. Sildenafil (Viagra, Revatio) may also be used for this condition. Lung transplantation may be required.
Bleeding and Clotting Disorders
Antiphospholipid Syndrome and Clotting Disorders. Hydroxychloroquine or aspirin may help prevent blood clots in women with antiphospholipid syndrome (APS). (Aspirin does not appear to be protective in men who carry the autoantibodies responsible for APS.) In patients who have experienced blood clots, treatment with the anticoagulant warfarin (Coumadin) is advisable. This blood-thinning drug may be needed lifelong. Scientists are investigating other treatment options, including autologous stem cell transplantation. The procedure has shown promise in studies for treating lupus-associated APS, but it is still experimental.
Excess Bleeding from Thrombocytopenia (Drop in Blood Platelets). Treatments that may be effective for thrombocytopenia include combinations of a corticosteroid and either danazol (a male hormone) or the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine. Immunosuppressants or intravenous immunoglobulin IgG may be helpful in some patients. Surgical removal of the spleen may be advisable if bleeding disorders are a serious problem, but this option should be considered carefully, because the spleen provides one line of defense against infection. (Abnormal spleen function, in any case, appears to be fairly common in SLE.)
Drugs. Mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept, Myfortic) and intravenous cyclophosphamide, as well as steroids are used to treat lupus kidney disease.
Procedures. Kidney transplant or dialysis should be considered for patients with SLE with severe kidney damage. For unknown reasons, SLE does not generally recur in the transplanted kidneys. Studies are conflicting, however, over whether SLE transplant patients have higher organ-rejection rates than other kidney-transplant recipients. Both transplantation and dialysis have potentially serious complications.
Plasmapheresis. It is not clear if plasmapheresis is beneficial for SLE kidney disease.
Treatments for osteoporosis include calcium, vitamin D, bisphosphonates, parathyroid hormone, and selective estrogen-receptor modulators (SERMs). [For more information, see In-Depth Report #18: Osteoporosis.]
The need for aggressive treatment of high blood pressure often accompanies kidney disease. SLE is also accompanied by high cholesterol levels, which requires diet changes and drug therapies. [For more information, see In-Depth Reports #3: Coronary artery disease; #14: High blood pressure; #23: Cholesterol; and #43: Heart healthy diet.]
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