Many medications are used for treatment of lupus, depending on the severity of your symptoms and side effects you have from the medications. Only the most commonly used medications are listed below. A number of medications are still considered experimental or are used less frequently, but these may be required to control your disease.

The information provided here is meant to give you a general idea about each of the medications listed below. Only the most general side effects are included. Ask your doctor if you need to take any special precautions. Use each of these medications only as recommended by your doctor, and according to the instructions provided. If you have further questions about usage or side effects, contact your doctor.

As much as possible, doctors treating lupus avoid the use of glucocorticoids (cortisone-like drugs, steroids) because of their severe long-term side effects. However, these drugs are very effective in relieving the symptoms of lupus and will most likely be part of your treatment program at some point.

Less dangerous medications are the mainstay of controlling the symptoms of lupus as long as they are effective. Foremost on the list are the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They, too, cause significant side effects, but none so severe as the glucocorticoids. Antimalarial drugs are also used for their effects on the immune system.

A fourth class of drugs used in lupus is the cytotoxic agents, the same ones used in ]]>chemotherapy]]> to treat cancer. These drugs, combined with glucocorticoids, reduce the incidence of kidney failure, the most lethal complication of lupus.

Many people with lupus have skin problems, which are often treated with topical corticosteroids. Other topical treatments are also used, as well as some of the medications listed below.

Prescription Medications

]]>Glucocorticoids]]> (Cortisone-like Drugs, Steroids)

  • Prednisone
  • Prednisolone

]]>Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs]]> (NSAIDs)—Higher Doses

  • Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)
  • Naproxen (Naprosyn, Aleve)
  • Sulindac (Clinoril)
  • Diclofenac (Voltaren)
  • Piroxicam (Feldene)
  • Ketoprofen (Orudis)
  • Diflunisal (Dolobid)
  • Nabumetone (Relafen)
  • Etodolac (Lodine)
  • Oxaprozin (Daypro)
  • Indomethacin (Indocin)
  • Celecoxib (Celebrex)

]]>Antimalarial Drugs]]>

  • Hydroxychloroquine sulfate (Plaquenil)
  • Chloroquine (Aralen)
  • Quinacrine (Atabrine)

]]>Cytotoxic Agents]]>

  • Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)
  • Azathioprine (Imuran)
  • Mycophenolate mofetil (Cellcept)

]]>Experimental Therapies—B-Cell Depleting Medications]]>

  • Rituximab (Rituxan)

Over-the-Counter Medications

]]>Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)—Lower Doses]]>

  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)
  • Piroxicam (Feldene)
  • Sulindac (Clinoril)

]]>Dehydroepiandrosterone]]> (DHEA)

Prescription Medications


Glucocorticoids (Cortisone-like Drugs, Steroids)

Common names include:

For lupus, cortisone-like drugs are given in short, sometimes tapering, bursts lasting a week or two. This is done to avoid the adverse effects of prolonged treatment. These doses are often quite effective in reducing inflammation, but should not be used when the inflammation is fighting off an infection. Beyond a week or two the adverse side effects increase rapidly.

There are many complications associated with glucocorticoids. Even repetitive doses separated by significant intervals of time may eventually cause damage. Before taking a dose of a cortisone-like drug, be sure to ask your doctor if you have any reasons for avoiding it. Additionally, you may need to take calcium, vitamin D, osteoporosis and blood pressure medication, and to monitor your blood sugar levels while taking corticosteroids.

Possible side effects of glucocorticoids include:


Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)—Higher Doses

Common names include:

NSAIDS are widely used in the treatment of lupus, mostly for musculoskeletal complaints. While they are probably safer for long term use than corticosteroids, they can cause serious side effects. You should remain in close contact with your doctor if you are on one of these medications.

Possible side effects of NSAIDs at high doses include:

  • Stomach irritation, ulcers, and bleeding
  • Allergic reactions
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • ]]>Asthma]]>
  • Thrombotic disease, especially ]]>heart attacks]]> and ]]>strokes]]>

Since patients with lupus are at increased risk for heart attacks and strokes, you should discuss your risk factors (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, post-menopausal status, diabetes) with your doctor before starting an NSAID. He or she may prescribe an aspirin, or refer you for a heart evaluation. Also, take special care with NSAIDs and aspirin if you have had peptic disease (stomach or ]]>duodenal ulcers]]> or ]]>gastritis]]> ). If appropriate, consider taking additional medication for gastric protection.


Antimalarial Drugs

Common names include:

  • Hydroxychloroquine sulfate (Plaquenil)
  • Chloroquine]]> (Aralen)

Originally used to treat malaria, these drugs modify the inflammatory response in ways that benefit lupus patients. They are not used for serious, organ-threatening disease, but rather for more moderate symptoms.

Possible side effects of antimalarials include:

  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • ]]>Diarrhea]]>
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Loss of appetite
  • Visual disturbances
  • Rashes
  • Blood damage
  • Muscle weakness


Cytotoxic Agents

Common names include:

None of these drugs is FDA-approved for lupus. However, when used carefully for severe episodes, they have proven effective. Treatment is stopped as soon as a satisfactory response is achieved or an undesirable side effect occurs.

Cyclophosphamide is the most effective and the most toxic. Azathioprine is second in effectiveness and less toxic. Mycophenolate mofetil is even less toxic, but may be less effective in treating organ-based inflammation.

Possible side effects of cytotoxic agents include:

  • Bone marrow damage
  • Reduced resistance to infections
  • Increased frequency of cancer
  • Hair loss
  • Ovary damage
  • Liver damage (Azathioprine)
  • Bladder damage (Cyclophosphamide)

Over-the-Counter Medications

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—Lower Doses

Common names include:

Aspirin is really the first of the NSAIDs and acts in exactly the same way as the rest of them. There are minor differences among the available agents in terms of dosing intervals, frequency of certain side effects, and other characteristics.

Possible side effects of NSAIDs at low doses include:

  • Stomach irritation
  • Ulcers and bleeding
  • Allergic reactions
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Asthma
  • Thrombotic disease—heart attacks and strokes

Take special care with NSAIDs and aspirin if you have had peptic disease (stomach or duodenal ulcers or gastritis).

]]>Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

DHEA]]> is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. There is conflicting evidence as to how effective this supplement is in reducing symptoms of lupus.

Some possible side effects include:

  • Increased blood sugar levels
  • Acne, facial hair, hair loss, weight gain, and voice depening in women
  • Enlarged breasts, increased blood pressure and testicular wasting in men
  • Theoretical risk of ]]>Ovarian cancer]]>, breast cancer, and prostate cancer

Talk to your doctor before taking DHEA. This supplement can affect other conditions that you have or interfere with your medicines.

Clinical Trials of New Drugs

There are major advances being made in lupus research. Whole new branches of medicine called molecular biology and genetic engineering are focusing on the mechanisms of immunity and inflammation. For this reason, you may want to consider participating in a clinical trial of new treatments. The government-sponsored website, Clinical maintains a listing of the trials that need volunteers.

Clinical trials are very tightly controlled experiments by the best researchers in the field. Every clinical trial is fully approved by several groups of knowledgeable health professionals for their safety and potential benefit. Each participant is informed of the risks and expected to cooperate completely with the treatment program. Some use medicines that are already on the market for other diseases, like the cytotoxic agents mentioned above. Others are brand new therapies that have been through at least two intense phases of testing—in the laboratory and on healthy human volunteers. Most clinical trials provide free care.

If you are interested, talk to your doctor about whether participating in a clinical trial is a good idea for you.

Special Considerations

Whenever you are taking a prescription medication, take the following precautions:

  • Take your medication as directed. Do not change the amount or the schedule.
  • Do not stop taking them without talking to your doctor.
  • Do not share them.
  • Know what the results and side effects. Report them to your doctor.
  • Some drugs can be dangerous when mixed. Talk to a doctor or pharmacist if you are taking more than one drug. This includes over-the-counter medication and herb or dietary supplements.
  • Plan ahead for refills so you don’t run out.

When to Contact Your Doctor

Contact your doctor if:

  • The desired effect of your medication is not achieved
  • A side effect occurs
  • You develop new stomach symptoms