Corticosteroids for lupus
|Generic Name||Brand Name|
|methylprednisolone acetate||Depo-Medrol, Medrol|
Depending on the drug, steroids may be given intravenously, as pills, as an injection, or applied to the skin in a cream or ointment.
High doses of prednisone may be used for short periods of time; the dose is then gradually reduced.
How It Works
Why It Is Used
Corticosteroids are used to control moderate to severe problems caused by lupus, including inflammation, pain, and tissue damage throughout the body.
Low-dose corticosteroids may be used to treat:
- Joint or muscle pain, skin rash, fatigue, fevers, and other symptoms that affect your quality of life and are not relieved by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or antimalarials.
- Severe skin rashes, which may respond to steroid creams or ointments, shots, or pills. However, the skin symptoms may return when you stop using the steroid.
High-dose corticosteroids are used to treat severe or life-threatening problems including:1
- Kidney disease.
- Inflammation of blood vessels (vasculitis).
- Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), tissues around the heart (pericarditis), the tissue that lines the chest cavity (pleurisy), or the tissues surrounding the intestines (peritonitis).
- Anemia due to the destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anemia) or low platelet count (thrombocytopenia).
How Well It Works
Corticosteroids often dramatically improve many symptoms of lupus. Some conditions respond in as little as a few days, while others may take several weeks of corticosteroid therapy. The effects of corticosteroids can include:1
- Decreased pain in joints and muscles.
- Decreased pain and inflammation from skin rashes.
- Decreased inflammation in blood vessels and in the tissues surrounding the heart and lungs.
- Decreased central nervous system symptoms, such as severe headaches and confusion.
Corticosteroids often work best for severe lupus when they are combined with other drugs such as mycophenolate mofetil, or cyclophosphamide with or without azathioprine.1
Corticosteroids are prescribed and monitored carefully because they cause significant side effects.
Corticosteroids cause a wide variety of side effects, some of which can be severe. The risk of side effects is especially high when corticosteroids are taken in high doses for long periods of time. There are times when it can be difficult to distinguish between corticosteroid side effects and lupus symptoms, such as fatigue or joint pain.
Most common and reversible corticosteroid side effects:
- Swelling caused by fluid retention (edema)
- Weight gain
- Rounding of facial features
- Mood swings, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, anxiety, and euphoria
- Easy bruising
- Increased risk of infection from immune suppression
- Elevated blood pressure
- Gastritis , peptic ulcer
- Problems with blood sugar levels (diabetes)
- Muscle weakness
Common and irreversible corticosteroid side effects:
- Bone thinning and weakening (osteoporosis)
- Stretch marks (striae)
- Excessive hair growth
- Artery damage
Uncommon and irreversible corticosteroid side effects:
- Thinning or destruction of the bone, most often at the hip joint (osteonecrosis)
See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)
What To Think About
If your main symptoms are pain, fatigue, or fever, many experts consider it best to avoid the side effects of steroids and try to control your symptoms with other medication, such as NSAIDs or antimalarials.
It is common to try to find a maintenance dose of steroids (taken daily or on alternate days) that is low enough to avoid serious side effects but high enough to control symptoms. You may start at a higher dose and then reduce the dose gradually after your symptoms have been controlled. If the dose that controls symptoms causes unacceptable side effects, another medication may also be used, such as an antimalarial or immunosuppressant.
To prevent osteoporosis while taking long-term corticosteroids, get plenty of calcium and vitamin D, and consider a preventive medicine, such as alendronate or risedronate. To come up with a plan that fits your needs, you may want to work with your doctor or a registered dietician. Weight-bearing exercise also helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis. For more information, see the topic Osteoporosis.
Last Updated: May 13, 2008