Chemo Drugs to Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which your own antibodies produced by your immune systems attacks your joints. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, this causes inflammation and pain in your joints, most often in your hands and your feet. RA may also affect your heart, eyes and lungs. Researchers are not certain what causes RA, but think it may run in families. Treatment options can vary ranging from medications to surgery. In more severe cases, chemo drugs may be used to treat RA.


Methotrexate is the most common drug used to treat RA. This medication is a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD). It works by slowing down the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and can save your joints and other tissues from permanent damage, according to the Mayo Clinic. While Methotrexate may help your RA symptoms, it can cause life-threatening side effects on your liver, lungs, kidneys and bone marrow (immune system), states Prevent these side effects by fully understanding your dosing schedule and sticking to it. Let your doctor know if you experience a dry cough, shortness of breath, blood in your urine or stools, severe blistering or skin rash, easy bruising or bleeding, nausea, stomach pain, fever, dark urine, clay-colored stools, or jaundice, because these may be signs of organ damage.


Azathioprine is a chemo drug that lowers your body’s immune system functioning, according to This may help in RA to prevent your body’s immune system from attacking your joints. A major risk of taking azathioprine is that it will increase your risk of infection because of the way it works. Therefore, let your doctor know if you feel ill, are experiencing body aches, weakness, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, white patches or sores inside your mouth or on your lips, fever, chills, or night sweats. Your doctor may reduce your dosage or prescribe a different type of medication.


Your doctor may also prescribe cyclophosphamide to treat your RA. Cyclophosphamide is also used to treat cancer, but is used in RA because it also reduces the action of your immune system. Like azathioprine, it decreases the reactivity of your immune system, which may reduce your symptoms of RA. You must also look for signs of infection when taking cyclophosphamide. In addition, this medication may cause changes in your bone marrow; therefore, your doctor will likely run blood tests to make sure your red and white blood cells remain at a healthy level. Be sure to let your doctor know of any abnormalities that you may be experiencing while taking cyclophosphamide.

About this Author

Jacques Courseault is the fitness editor for, founder and writer of Exercise Menu, and co-founder of Don’t Weight to Lose. He is a fourth-year medical student who plans to practice physical medicine and rehabilitation.