Biologics: What Are They, and Are They Right for You?

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Let's face it: The prospect of starting a biologic regimen can be scary. But it's also one that might very well make your life with rheumatoid arthritis much more manageable. Here are some key questions and answers about biologics and their side effects.


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What are biologics, anyway?

A relatively new class of medication -- first introduced in the late 1990s -- biologics are genetically engineered proteins derived from human genes. They are intended to inhibit components of the immune system that can cause inflammation. Biologics can also be used to treat other autoimmune diseases, such as psoriatic arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn's.


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Is it true biologics are really toxic and dangerous?

Biologics do pack more of a punch than some other medications. While they can bring you into remission from RA, they may spark some serious side effects. There have also been some promising studies that show biologics can increase life expectancy. Weigh the pros and cons and talk to your doctor to see if they are a right fit for you.


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Can’t I just take regular RA medications?

There are a number of existing RA medications, and in fact many insurance companies require that you to try them before starting a biologics regimen. If you’re nervous about trying biologics, try talking to your doctor about "triple therapy." Some studies have shown that treating RA with this sort of combination therapy can be highly effective.


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What’s the best way to administer biologics? Infusion or injection?

Biologics are usually administered either by injection or infusion. Injections are usually self-administered with pre-filled syringes or an auto-injector pen. Infusions are done at clinics or at an infusion center where it’s given through an IV, and may be more costly. You can choose the best method for you depending on your schedule and comfort level.


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How long before biologics start to work?

Response time varies. Some people have a quicker response than others. Some biologics start working within days of the first shot or infusion, while others can take up to three weeks or so.


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There are so many biologics to choose from. Which one is best?

This depends on you and your RA. There may be a number of factors that determine which one your doctor puts you on, from which one that provides a quicker positive response to your own preference of injection vs. infusion.


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What can I expect in terms of side effects?

Biologics are characterized as an immunosuppressant, so one of their primary side effects is an increased risk of infection. However, this risk can be managed. Other side effects include fatigue, nausea after receiving treatment, headaches, and gas -- all relatively manageable side effects. Talk to your doctor regarding any concerns you might have about more serious side effects.