The immune system is essential for protecting us from pathogens like bacteria and viruses. However, there are cases in which it may do more harm than good. Allergies, for example, occur when the immune system reacts adversely to something that we wouldn’t normally consider a threat. In more severe cases, the immune system reacts to the body itself, a condition called autoimmunity. Since the immune system can cause a lot of damage to the body, autoimmune reactions sometimes require suppression using medication. These drugs are appropriately called immunosuppressants.
Immunosuppressants work by a variety of methods to prevent an unwanted immune response. Some immune suppressing mechanisms include reducing the number of immune system cells, sending the cells elsewhere so they can’t find their target, and blocking part of the immune response sequence so it doesn’t run to completion. Although immunosuppressants can effectively treat autoimmunity, suppressing the immune system makes the body vulnernable to even minor diseases; therefore, immunosuppressants are only taken in severe cases. Three well-known cases of autoimmunity that may require suppression of the immune system include organ transplants, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
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After receiving an organ transplant, the body may view the new organ as a foreign invader. Recipients take immunosuppressants to prevent the immune system from attacking the transplanted organ. There are two types of immunosuppressants for organ transplant patients: induction and maintenance. Doctors administer induction immunosuppressants during the transplant to avoid a reaction while the transplant is taking place; organ recipients take maintenance immunosuppressants after the transplant has happened to ensure a reaction doesn’t occur later on.
Lupus is a disease characterized by inflammation resulting from an autoimmune response. There are many types of Lupus, though Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is the most common. Aside from inflammation, SLE can also cause a facial rash called a butterfly rash. Lupus is a chronic disease requiring immunosuppresants only in severe cases. Some common immunosuppressants prescribed for lupus include Imuran (azathioprine), Cellcept (mycophenolate), and Neoral (cyclosporine).
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Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common autoimmune disease and occurs when the immune system attacks tissue in the joints. This causes inflammation and pain. The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. The disease is treatable by a variety of methods and medications, including exercise, anti-inflammatory drugs, and antirheumatic drugs, some of which work by suppressing the immune response.
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