Belimumab (Benlysta)

pill bottle with pills

Belimumab is the first drug designed to treat lupus and was the first drug approved for lupus by the FDA in more than 50 years. It is used in combination with other lupus drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine and steroids. Belimumab treats people with mild or moderate lupus affecting the skin, joints, and other organs. It works against a protein that triggers certain cells in the immune system to attack different parts of the body.

How to Take It

Belimumab is given as an infusion, through a needle inserted into one of the veins by a health care professional. The infusion lasts about one hour. The dose is adjusted to your weight. The infusion schedule starts at every two weeks for the first four weeks, and after is given every four weeks. Usually, it takes effect in 12 weeks, but it can take longer in some patients.

In July 2017, the FDA approved belimumab in a self-injection form. This means you can give it to yourself by injecting under the skin once a week. The dose for the self-injection in 200mg and is pre-loaded into a syringe or device for you.

Side Effects

Belimumab often causes certain side effects, although many of these are mild. The most common side effects include headaches, diarrhea, nausea, muscle aches, and infections, such as colds, bronchitis, and urinary tract infections.

Having fluid put into your veins can also cause fevers, muscle aches, headaches, and infections.

Belimumab can lower the number of white blood cells in the blood of some people. It can also cause you to feel down and have thoughts of harming yourself, especially if you have a history of depression.

To know if belimumab is causing side effects, keep track of how long the symptoms last and whether they come back and discuss this with your care provider.

Tell Your Doctor

Before taking belimumab, tell your doctor if you plan to become pregnant. It is unknown if belimumab is safe to give to pregnant women. You should not try to become pregnant or breastfeed while taking this drug. If you do become pregnant, tell your doctor.

Tell your doctor if you have an infection, a history of cancer, or a history of depression. Belimumab can increase the risk of getting cancer, infections, and depression. Your doctor will talk to you about your own risks. Make sure your doctor knows if you have any concerns or new symptoms while taking belimumab.

Many vaccines, such as the flu shot and the pneumonia shot, are safe to get while taking belimumab, but some, such as the shingles vaccine, are not. Talk to your doctor about getting vaccines before starting belimumab. To keep yourself safe and healthy while taking belimumab, tell your doctor if you have any of the following side effects:

  • mood changes such as depression, anxiety, or thoughts about hurting yourself
  • chest pain or tightness
  • trouble breathing or wheezing
  • fever, night sweats, tiredness, or weight loss

Written March 2019 by Marcy Bolster, MD,  and reviewed by the American College of Rheumatology Committee on Communications and Marketing.

This information provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of a medical or health condition.

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