Immunosuppressants are medications which have a depressive effect on the immune system. They slow or block immune system functions, using a variety of different mechanisms. Such drugs are prescribed to people who are at risk of experiencing inappropriate immune responses which could endanger their health. A specialist such as a rheumatologist is usually in charge of immunosuppressive therapy and monitors the patient for any signs of complications.
The classic reason to prescribe immunosuppressants is in the treatment of a patient who is preparing for or has undergone an organ transplant. Even when an organ donor is a good match for the patient, the body can recognize the organ as foreign, and the immune system may begin to attack it. This is not desirable, as it will compromise the function of the organ and could lead to transplant rejection, in which the transplanted organ fails to take. Immunosuppressants are used to prevent the immune system from attacking a transplanted organ. When used in this context, the drugs may be known as anti-rejection drugs.
Another reason to prescribe immunosuppressive drugs is because a patient has an autoimmune condition such as Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, alopecia areata, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, or severe eczema. In these cases, the patient's body is attacking itself because the immune system has become confused, and immunosuppressants can be used to moderate the immune response to reduce the damage to the patient's body and slow the progress of the disease when other measures are not effective.
Many immunosuppressants work by inhibiting the inflammatory response, with corticosteroids being a well known and widely used example of such drugs. Other drugs may inhibit the activation of T-cells to blunt immune reactions, and some can interfere with cell division at a targeted site in the body. New immunosuppressive drugs are periodically developed and released by pharmaceutical companies, and patients may take a mixture of such drugs or periodically change their drug regimens.
When someone is on immunosuppressants, she or he is very vulnerable to infection. It is critical that the patient avoid exposure to infectious agents, including diseases caught by family members. While on the drugs, the patient may have a list of recommendations which need to be followed, including recommendations for family members such as not receiving live vaccines which could result in passing organisms to the patient. It is important to contact a doctor at the first signs of infection, such as fever, swelling, and redness.