By A. G. Moore
One of the first medications a lupus patient may be offered is Plaquenil. While every drug has side effects, Plaquenil is generally considered to be “safer” than many other medicines prescribed to treat lupus. Researchers are finding out more about this drug all the time; the current state of science indicates that Plaquenil is effective against lupus, and some other inflammatory diseases, because it creates an inhospitable environment for some actors in the immune process. In this way Plaquenil inhibits the immune response and thus also inhibits inflammation.
Though Plaquenil is considered to be relatively “safe”, there are several populations in whom great care should be taken before the medicine is prescribed. If you are over the age of 60, the chance for retinal damage increases. If you have psoriasis or porphyria, taking this drug may exacerbate your condition. Anyone with reduced liver or kidney function should also consider carefully if the risks of the drugs outweigh its benefits. Plaquenil can be extremely dangerous for children, especially children under the age of 6. People who have a metabolic disorder called G6PD run the risk of developing severe anemia on Plaquenil therapy.
The most commonly addressed side effect of Plaquenil therapy is retinal damage. Every responsible opinion I have read prescribes a visual screening before therapy begins and then a re-check several weeks later. While it is rare for eye damage to occur, especially if therapy lasts less than five years, it is important to keep in mind that once damage occurs, it is most likely irreversible. And the changes in the retina may not be noticed subjectively but can be detected by sophisticated testing in the ophthalmologist’s office. Many doctors recommend a yearly check-up; some recommend six months. If I were on Plaquenil I would go for six months because I’d like to detect damage before it goes very far.
With all of the warnings listed above (this is just a partial list of possible side effects) it would seem that Plaquenil is a dreadful drug. It really isn’t for most people. Lupus is a dreadful disease and sometimes you have to take out a big gun to control it. Plaquenil is actually one of the smaller guns in the arsenal against lupus.
Originally used as a treatment for malaria, Plaquenil is useful not only in treating SLE (though not severe SLE), but also other inflammatory diseases. The drug is supposed to be particularly effective at treating discoid lupus.
All of the sources I consulted implicate higher-dose and longer-term Plaquenil treatment in increased risk of eye damage. So if you are on Plaquenil for many years, certainly as many as 8, your doctor might begin a conversation with you about switching to an alternative treatment.
Several helpful sources I used in order to get information for this article were:
Plaquenil Data Sheet: http://www.medsafe.govt.nz/profs/datasheet/p/Plaqueniltab.pdf
I think anybody contemplating taking this medication should read and understand each of these sources. In making this recommendation I am operating on the theory that, though we may not know everything the doctor knows, we always should be vigilant in supervising our own medical care.