Withdrawing from Corticosteroids. Once the intestinal inflammation has subsided, steroids must be withdrawn very gradually. Withdrawal symptoms, including fever, malaise, and joint pain, may occur if the dosage is lowered too rapidly. If this happens, the dosage is increased slightly and maintained until symptoms are gone. More gradual withdrawal is then resumed.
For very active inflammatory bowel disease that does not respond to standard treatments, immunosuppressant drugs are used for long-term therapy. Such drugs suppress or limit actions of the immune system and therefore the inflammatory response that causes Crohn's disease. Immunosuppressants may help maintain remission in Crohn's disease and heal fistulas and intestinal ulcers caused by this disease. These drugs are sometimes combined with a corticosteroid drug for treating active disease flares.
Azathioprine (Imuran, Azasan) and 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP, Purinethol) are the standard oral immunosuppressant drugs. However, it can take 3 - 6 months for these drugs to have an effect. To speed up the response, they are sometimes prescribed along with a corticosteroid drug. Lower steroid doses are then needed, resulting in fewer side effects. Corticosteroids may also be withdrawn more quickly. For this reason, immunosuppressants are sometimes referred to as steroid-sparing drugs.
Other pill forms of immunosuppressants include cyclosporine A (Sandimmune, Neoral) and tracrolimus (Prograf). These drugs are quicker-acting than azathiopine and 6-mercaptopurine. Cyclosporine A generally takes 1 - 2 weeks to take effect. For patients who have Crohn’s disease accompanied by fistulas, Cyclosporine A may be given intravenously. For patients whose condition affects the mouth or area around the anus, tracrolimus is available as a topical ointment.
Methotrexate (MTX, Rheumatrex, Mexate) is another fast-acting type of immunosuppressant. It is given weekly and may be an option for patients with severe Crohn’s disease who have not been helped by other immunosuppressant drugs. However, methotrexate can cause miscarriages and birth defects (as well as liver damage). Because of these complications, both men and women who take methotrexate should use birth control.
General side effects of immunosuppressants may include nausea, vomiting, and liver or pancreatic inflammation. Patients should receive frequent blood tests to monitor bone marrow, liver, and kidneys. Patients who take cyclosporine A or tacrolimus need to have their blood pressure and kidney function checked regularly.
Biologic response modifiers are genetically engineered drugs that target specific proteins involved with the body's inflammatory response.
Review Date: 09/28/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.