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Newer RA Drugs Don't Seem to Raise Shingles Risk


WebMD News from HealthDay

By Serena Gordon

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, March 5 (HealthDay News) -- The newest medications used to treat autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis don't appear to raise the risk of developing shingles, new research indicates.

There has been concern that these medications, called anti-tumor necrosis factor (anti-TNF) drugs, might increase the chances of a shingles infection (also known as herpes zoster) because they work by suppressing a part of the immune system that causes the autoimmune attack.

"These are commonly used drugs for people with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, and the issue was whether or not they increased the risk of [shingles]. We found there is no increased risk when using these drugs, which was reassuring," said study author Dr. Kevin Winthrop, associate professor of infectious disease and public health and preventive medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

Results of the study are published in the March 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Shingles is a major concern for people with autoimmune conditions, particularly people who are older and more at risk for developing shingles in general. Shingles is caused when the same virus that causes chickenpox is reactivated.

The symptoms of shingles, however, are often far more serious than chickenpox. It typically starts with a burning or tingling pain, which is followed by the appearance of fluid-filled blisters, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Shingles pain can vary from mild to so severe that even the lightest touch causes intense pain.

People who have rheumatoid arthritis already have an increased risk of shingles, although Winthrop said it's not exactly clear why. It may be due to older age, or it may have something to do with the disease itself.

Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions are treated with many different medications that help dampen the immune system and, hopefully, the autoimmune attack. Corticosteroids such as prednisone often are the first line of treatment, but because these drugs have many side effects, the goal is to be on the lowest dose possible or off them altogether.

Two other classes of drugs -- the "biologic" anti-TNF drugs and a group of medications called non-biologic disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) -- are newer medications that can be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions. Examples of biologics are adalimumab (Humira), etanercept (Enbrel) and infliximab (Remicade). A commonly used DMARD is methotrexate.

Winthrop and his colleagues reviewed data from almost 60,000 people with various autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. More than 33,000 were taking biologic anti-TNF drugs, and almost 26,000 were on DMARDs. The study period ran from 1998 through 2008.

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