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What are Immunosuppressants

If your doctor has prescribed an immunosuppressant drug for you, you may be wondering: what are immunosuppressants?  All medications are categorized into groups.  There are antibiotic groups that help kill infections, steroids that can help with autoimmune disorders or even asthma, there are anti-coagulation medications that thin the blood to prevent stroke and blood clots, immunosuppressants and many other categories.

Immunosuppressant medications are a class of drugs that work to suppress or reduce the way the body’s immune system works.  There are sub-classes of drugs also that work on different parts of the body. In the case of organ transplants immunosupprssant drugs are in a class called anti-rejection drugs, and are used in the suppression of the immune system, so that the body does not rejected a newly transplanted organ, for example a liver, kidney, heart, or lung.  In addition there are immunosuppressant agents that can be used to treat lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis cancer, severe allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis.

Why do I need an Immunosuppressant

When a foreign object or bacteria is placed in your body, your body does not recognize it as its own.  Whenever the human body detects foreign material in the body; be it a virus, bacteria, or a transplanted  tissue or organ, the body sets the immune system in motion to attack and destroy the foreign body with white blood cells which are the soldiers in the body sent to protect it and fight at all costs. As white blood cells die off the body sheds them and replacing them immediately.  When you have a cold and have to blow your nose because of all the mucous, that is actually the shedding of white bloods cells. This process is natural and necessary.

In some cases for some reason the body continues to send white blood cells and doesn’t stop. In the case of an organ or tissue transplant, this is a natural reaction but causes the rejection of the donor tissue or organ. In the case of Ulcerative Colitis, bad bacteria work their way into areas of the colon where they are not supposed because for whatever reason the mucous layer in the colon has been compromised and the body reacts by attacking the bad bacteria with white blood cells. When the body does not stop attacking, ulcers form and start to bleed.  In cases where other drug therapies have not worked, a sub-class of immunosuppressants is prescribed to make it less likely that the body’s own immune system will continue to attack. Immunosuppressants are used to calm the immune system so that it stops attacking.

Risks of Immunosuppressant Drugs

One of the major risks of taking these types of medications is an increased risk for food poisoning.  Immunosuppressants keep your body from fighting an infection like it is normally programmed to do.  Consuming raw and undercooked foods can put someone on this class of drugs at a very high risk for food poisoning, and even death.

Not only are patients on immunosuppressants more at risk for foodborne illnesses, they are also more likely to catch other types of bacterial and viral illnesses.  Many people taking these drugs need to alter their lifestyle to limit their exposure to illness.  For some patients, catching even a common cold can prove to be very serious.  Even though there are different sub-classes of immunosuppressants, it is important to remember that these drugs alter the entire immune system and suppress the whole immune system in the body. If you are taking an immunosuppressant, contact your doctor immediately if you start running a fever or aren’t feeling well. Check with your pharmacist regarding the side effects of the drug you are on. Pharmacists are highly trained and may know more about the side effects than your doctor. You can also ask for the drug insert and read about the side effects yourself.

Side Effects

There are also many side effects associated with taking these drugs.  These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood glucose, peptic ulcers, moon face, and injury to the liver or kidneys.  These medications can also interact with other medications, causing additional side effects or concerns.

You should always speak with your doctor or pharmacist regarding any questions you have about medications you are taking.  It is important to be informed about why you are taking a medication and how it may affect you.  Immunosuppressants are a very necessary class of drugs, however, they can also be dangerous.  Being fully informed about these medications will greatly increase your chances of using them successfully.

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