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Prednisone and the treatment of autoimmune diseases

The word “disease” is supposed to be easy to understand. Indeed, if you walked out into the street right now and asked people what it meant, almost all would tell you it means the body is not working as it should and so our health is affected. If you went on to ask what the most common causes might be, the majority will smile happily and tell you about bacteria and viruses. All of which is perfectly reasonable so long as you are talking about infectious diseases. Every year, millions around the world fall ill. Many die. If you ask the WHO, they will talk unhappily about bad drinking water and poor sanitation, the key factors in an environment in which makes the prevention of disease difficult. Even though there are vaccinations for many of the diseases, a combination of poverty and malnutrition means that people cannot afford the protection and, worse, are more likely to die from those infections because of their weakened autoimmune system. This means disease and death are routine parts of life in various countries around the world.

Even in developed countries like ours, we have major problems from food poisoning and the increasing spread of mosquitos is bringing malaria and West Nile disease into increasingly northern states as the climate warms. But, lurking as a substantial minority form of disease, are to so-called autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. This is part of the body’s defense to bacterial and virus infections. It’s working well when the body correctly identifies invading pathogens and fights the infection. But if it makes a mistake, it treats the body’s own cells as a pathogen and attacks them. Doctors have so far identified 80 different diseases caused by faults in the autoimmune system. The majority are long-term, destroy the quality of life, and threaten life. One of the more common of these diseases is rheumatoid arthritis, affecting about 1.5% of the adult population. It’s more common among women. Indeed, autoimmune diseases are among the top ten causes of death among women of all social classes up to the age of 65.

When aiming to devise a therapy for infectious diseases, doctors are trying to give the autoimmune system the best chances of beating the invading bacteria or virus. But when the problem lies in the autoimmune system itself, there has to be a different strategy. The most common answer developed over the last forty years is to use a corticosteroid like Prednisone to suppress the operation of the autoimmune system. The effect is to prevent the body from attacking its healthy cells and so slow the more obvious symptoms of inflammation and the accompanying pain. In some cases, the doctor will limit the use of this drug to just a few days. But, in cases where the problem is long-term, the treatment may also have to be long-term. This is not without problems because Prednisone shuts down the adrenal gland. This means you must stick to the dosage regime and not change the doses without approval. Used as directed, the worst symptoms will disappear quickly and your quality of life will improve.

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