What are Immunosuppressive Drugs?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Immunosuppressive drugs may simply be called immunosuppressants. There are many different forms of these drugs that act in different ways on the immune system so that this system doesn’t produce a normal immune response. The immune system of the human is intensely complex and can be of great benefit, but also a huge problem if it malfunctions. People who suffer from autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or HIV have what are called inappropriate immune responses, where the body’s immune system attacks the body, instead of attacking foreign cells. In order to inhibit this response, immunosuppressive drugs can form a part of treatment.

Some immunosuppressive drugs may stop allergic responses, especially for those with asthma.
Some immunosuppressive drugs may stop allergic responses, especially for those with asthma.

Another indication for use of immunosuppressive drugs is organ transplantation. Usually, without immunosuppressants, the body views the new organ as foreign and will immediately kick up an immune response, labeled “rejection” of the organ. Certain medications dull or eliminate this response so that the body accepts the organ. Some recent trends in transplantation show there are ways to give these drugs for a shorter time period and still avoid rejection, which significantly improves survival rate and body acceptance of an organ.

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis may include immunosuppressive drugs.
Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis may include immunosuppressive drugs.

There are various ways immunosuppressive drugs can act. They might inhibit certain genes that create immune response or stop cells from dividing. Some cause a reduction in inflammation, and others are used as a way to stop allergic response, especially for sufferers of things like asthma. In most cases, though these drugs are beneficial, they can also take a serious toll on health.

One of the main difficulties with using immunosuppressive drugs is that the body is then vulnerable to viruses and bacterial or parasitic infections, much more so than the body that has an appropriate immune response. However, chance of illness if the immune system isn’t suppressed is so much greater that using these drugs is generally justified. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a significant downside.

Some immunosuppressive drugs are so strong they will require quarantine of a patient at a hospital while they are used. These are usually used for short periods of time only, because it would be very difficult to pursue any type of normal life if quarantine was necessary at all times. Other immunosuppressive drugs can cause upsurge in number of illnesses a person will get, and these illnesses can be more severe and dangerous than they would be for a person with an adequate immune response. People taking immunosuppressants may need special precautionary measures. These could include getting their vaccinations, having yearly flu shots, and avoiding direct contact with people with serious illnesses or sometimes even mild illnesses.

Without immunosuppressants, the body views an organ transplant -- heart, kidneys, liver, lungs and pancreas, for example -- as foreign.
Without immunosuppressants, the body views an organ transplant -- heart, kidneys, liver, lungs and pancreas, for example -- as foreign.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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My vet prescribed an immunosuppressive drug to my dog after she experienced an extreme allergic reaction. She was either bitten or stung by something on her nose, and her entire face had begun to swell. Once the swelling reached her neck and she started to wheeze, I knew she needed help fast.

The vet said that she could have gone into anaphalactic shock, so it was good that I brought her in. She gave my dog a huge shot of steroids to stop the swelling. She also gave me a dose pack of immunosuppressants to use over the next week, and the doses gradually declined with each pill.


@orangey03 - My grandfather had to take corticosteroids, also, and he suffered several undesirable side effects. He had to be on prednisone for six months to lessen the inflammation in his lungs. He suffered from emphysema, and the prednisone helped relieve some of the irritation.

However, as many people who take this immunosuppressant for months do, he swelled up. He was retaining water in his abdomen, and it became round and tight.

Also, his blood pressure increased. His doctor eventually took him off the steroids, but he had to be weaned off of them gradually. Apparently, if you rely on them for very long, your body stops making its own steroids, and you have to slowly let it know that it needs to start manufacturing it again.


@OeKc05 - My sister took immunosuppressants to avoid a kidney transplant rejection, and there were several things that her doctor recommended that she do to fight the side effects. She was on corticosteroids, which are known for weakening the bones if you take them long-term. To prevent osteoporosis, she had to do exercises that were aimed at increasing and maintaining bone density.

Weight-bearing workouts can involve everything from weight machines and dumbbells to walking, dancing, and swimming. As long as there is some resistance involved, then your muscles will have to strain against the weight, and this is what you need to build and keep strong bones.

My sister did a little bit of several types of these exercises, and she never had a problem with bone weakness. As long as you are not in bed with a sickness, then you can exercising and putting up a fight to save your body.


I have a disease that will likely result in the need for a kidney transplant, so immunosuppressive drugs will be in my future. I am having trouble coming to terms with this, because I don’t really know what to expect.

Other than the weakened immune system and increased chances of getting sick, what are some of the side effects of immunosuppressive drugs? Will I still be able to exercise while I am on them, or will I be so weak that this just won’t be possible? I really hope that I will be physically able to do everything I can to maintain my health, and exercise would be a big part of that.


I have never known anyone who has not been on immunosuppressant drugs after an organ transplant.

Even then, it is a constant challenge to keep their immune system strong. One of my best friends had a liver transplant several years ago.

If you didn't know she had this done, you would never guess it. She tries really hard to live a full and active life even though she has her challenging days.

She was told she would have to take these drugs the rest of her life. For her, this is a small price to pay for the gift of life that was given her.

She gets sick easier than most people and doesn't have as much energy as she would like, but makes the best with what she has.


I personally know two people who have received a kidney transplant. One of the main concerns they have with a kidney transplant procedure is the chance of rejection.

When it comes to organ transplants, I don't think I would want to take the chance of it being rejected. Taking the immunosuppressive drugs would be better than taking a chance on the kidney being rejected.

My husband has a co-worker who has had a liver and pancreas transplant because of diabetes. If he didn't stay on immunosuppressive drugs, he would probably not be alive today.

Even though he never really looks very healthy and makes a lot of trips to the doctor, he is still able to work on a part time basis.

Taking all of the drugs is not much fun and fear of organ rejection is a constant concern, but at least he is still able to work and somewhat enjoy life.


For anybody who has an autoimmune disease, it can be a dilemma trying to decide whether to use immunosuppressive drugs or not.

One of my good friends has had lupus for a long time, and this disease really takes a toll on her. She doesn't have much energy and ends of being sick a lot of the time.

It finally got to the point where she was on disability and couldn't work. Taking immunosuppressive drugs has been part of her protocol.

If she didn't take these drugs, her ability to function would be much worse than it is. While it isn't the most ideal option, her quality of life would be much worse if she refused to take them.


When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it was scary wondering what kind of medications I would be taking.

There are so many different kinds of treatment for arthritis, but I was at the point where over the counter medications were not helping with the pain or inflammation.

Going on immunosuppressive drugs was certainly a last resort for me, and I tried to put it off as long as possible.

When your own immune system is attacking your body, you realize that you have to take drastic measures if you want a good quality of life at all.

I just hope I won't have to be on these all of the time. I know they have bad side effects, but I hope I can get to the point where I don't have to take them all of the time, and give my body a break from them.


I agree with @burcinc. Pretty much all disorders have alternative treatments with other drugs available for them except for organ transplants. Organ transplants would rarely be successful if it weren't for immunosuppressive drugs. I think they're a boon to have for someone who's waiting for an organ to extend their life. I've heard in the news so many cases of organ rejection after immunosuppressive drug therapies were ended early.

And I don't think it's necessary to scare everyone about immunosuppressive drugs. I have a friend who has been on them for the past eight years or so because of an overactive immune system. She doesn't get sick very much, maybe a cold once a year but that's how often people with healthy immune systems get sick anyway. And she doesn't isolate herself from people at all! She's a teacher and is always around kids.

So there is no rule that someone is going to be constantly sick while on immunosuppressant medications.


@fify-- My sister has Crohn's disease and I know what you're going through. The thing about immunosuppresive drugs is that it's never the first choice of doctors if the condition can be treated with other medications. But when the symptoms and risks far outweigh the risks of immunosuppressants, then they will opt for this therapy.

If your body is responding to the immunosuppressants and if you can prevent your flare-ups through them, I think you should continue to take them. Immunosuppressants don't work for everyone. My sister has been on three different types of immunosuppressants for Crohn's and she hasn't responded to any. She appeared to be responding to the second one but her flares came back by the second month.

And I don't think you have to be on these drugs forever. The immune system can improve over time. And some immunosuppressant drugs are not supposed to be taken for very long anyway. If you are worried, you can ask your doctor to be off them for a while to see how it goes. You can always get back on them later.


I'm on immunosuppressants for ulcerative colitis. My bowels get inflamed because my immune system attacks it. My doctor said that I might have to be on immunosuppressants for the rest of my life. I really hope that won't be the case.

While I'm on immunosuppressants, I get sick a lot. Thankfully, it's things like ear and sinus infections that can be treated with antibiotics. But it is tiresome to be constantly dealing with an infection and having to keep away from crowds in fear of getting sick.

Dealing with ulcerative colitis without immunosuppressants is not easy either. I'm just not sure which is better, being on immunosuppressants or not.

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