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Rituximab (Rituxan and MabThera) is a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis that has not improved with other types of medications, as well as certain forms of vasculitis. It works by turning off a part of the immune system that is not working properly in autoimmune diseases.
Rituximab is used in combination with methotrexate to treat rheumatoid arthritis that has not responded to one or more types of treatment, including TNF inhibitors. Rituximab also is used to treat certain types of vasculitis (an inflammatory condition affecting blood vessels), such as granulomatosis with polyangiitis or MPA. Occasionally rituximab is used to treat other immune problems, including lupus, and inflammatory muscle diseases when these are resistant to any other treatment. Rituximab also is used in the treatment of some blood disorders, including chronic lymphocytic leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Rituximab is given as an intravenous infusion (IV or “drip”) into a vein. The infusion usually takes two - four hours, although occasionally it can take longer. A course of rituximab for rheumatoid arthritis usually consists of two 1000mg doses given 15 days apart and often repeated within six months. To treat vasculitis, a smaller dose is given once a week for four weeks in a row.
The effects of rituximab begin about six weeks after the infusions. Usually by the third month the full effect occurs, and can last up to nine months.
Sometimes, patients’ blood pressure can drop during the treatment. Those who take medication to lower their blood pressure may have to stop it before the infusion.
Some patients feel mild side effects during or up to 24 hours after receiving rituximab. These usually occur with the first infusion, and can include mild throat tightening, flu-like symptoms, rash, itchiness, dizziness, back pain, nausea, upset stomach, sweating, nervousness, muscle stiffness, and numbness. These symptoms can be reduced by receiving a steroid injection before the infusion, along with acetaminophen (Tylenol) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl). The infusion is sometimes stopped for a short while and then restarted at a slower rate if the symptoms get better. Rarely, patients will have more serious symptoms, such as wheezing, mouth or throat swelling, trouble breathing, or chest pain. Patients who experience these symptoms should tell their health care providers immediately; patients may receive stronger medications to treat those symptoms.
In the months after the treatment, some people may notice more frequent infections, such as colds or sinusitis. Usually, these are not severe. There are a few rare but serious side effects from rituximab. These include severe skin reactions and mouth sores. Patients who experience vision changes, loss of balance, difficulty walking, or confusion should contact their doctors immediately.
Combining treatment with other biologic drugs, which suppress the immune system, including etanercept (Enbrel), adalimumab (Humira), infliximab (Remicade), certolizumab (Cimzia), golimumab (Simponi), abatacept (Orencia), and tocilizumab (Actemra) may increase the risk of serious infections and is contra-indicated.
Updated March 2019 by Isabelle Amigues, MD, and reviewed by the American College of Rheumatology Committee on Communications and Marketing.
This information is 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.