What is adalimumab?

Adalimumab (Humira™) is an anti-TNF drug. In rheumatoid arthritis and some other conditions, too much of a protein called TNF (tumour necrosis factor) is produced in the body, causing inflammation, pain and damage to the bones and joints. Anti-TNF drugs such as adalimumab block the action of TNF and so reduce this inflammation.

Adalimumab isn't a painkiller but can modify the disease and improve your symptoms over a period of 2–12 weeks.

Uses

Adalimumab can be prescribed by a rheumatologist for:

  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • psoriatic arthritis
  • ankylosing spondylitis
  • juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).

There are national and local guidelines that determine when it can be used, and these vary according to which condition you have. It's often prescribed along with a disease-modifying drug such as methotrexate.

Is there any reason I won't be prescribed adalimumab?

Adalimumab won't be started if:

  • the disease isn't active
  • you have an infection
  • you haven't tried other treatments appropriate for your condition first.

Doctors sometimes use a score known as DAS28 to work out how active your arthritis is. This counts how many of 28 specific joints are tender and swollen, and looks at inflammation levels in a blood test. You'll also be asked to score how well you feel on a scale of 0 to 10.

Your doctor may decide not to prescribe adalimumab if you've had:

  • repeated or severe infections
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • cancer
  • a serious heart condition
  • lung fibrosis (scarring of the lung tissue).

Before starting adalimumab you'll have a chest x-ray and tests to check if you've ever been exposed to tuberculosis (TB). You may need treatment for latent (asymptomatic) TB before starting adalimumab. You'll also be checked for previous hepatitis infection, as adalimumab may increase the risk of this being reactivated.

You may have further blood tests while you're on adalimumab to monitor its effects.

How is it taken and how long does it take to work?

The usual dose of adalimumab is 40 mg once every two weeks, given by injection under the skin (subcutaneous injection). You, your partner, or another family member can learn to give the injections at home.

If adalimumab works for you, your symptoms should start to improve in 2–12 weeks. Because it's a long-term treatment, it's important to keep taking adalimumab (unless you have severe side-effects):

  • even if it doesn't seem to be working at first
  • even when your symptoms improve (to help keep the disease under control).

Side-effects and risks

The most common side-effects are reactions at the injection site, such as redness, swelling or pain, but these aren't usually serious. Regularly changing the injection site will help reduce the chances of this irritation.

Because adalimumab affects the immune system, it can make you more likely to pick up infections. It can also make them harder to spot. Tell your doctor or rheumatology nurse straight away if you develop any signs of infection – for example, a sore throat, fever, diarrhoea, coughing up green phlegm – or any other new symptoms that concern you. If any of these symptoms are severe, you should stop taking adalimumab and see your doctor straight away.

You should also see your doctor immediately if you develop chickenpox or shingles or come into contact with someone who has chickenpox or shingles. These illnesses can be severe if you're on adalimumab. You may need antiviral treatment, and your adalimumab may be stopped until you're better.

Rarely, people may have an allergic reaction. Contact your healthcare team if you think this may be happening. If the reaction is severe the drug will have to be stopped.

Anti-TNF drugs have been associated with some types of skin cancer – these can be readily treated when diagnosed early. Research so far hasn't confirmed an increased risk of other cancers.

Very rarely, adalimumab may cause a condition called drug-induced lupus, which can be diagnosed by a blood test. Symptoms include a rash, fever and increased joint pain. If you develop these symptoms you should contact your rheumatology team. The condition is usually mild and clears up if adalimumab is stopped.

Reducing the risk of infection

Effects on other treatments

Adalimumab may be prescribed alongside other drugs including methotrexate.

Check with your doctor before starting any new medications, and remember to mention you're on adalimumab if you're treated by anyone other than your usual rheumatology team.

You can carry on taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) or painkillers, if needed, unless your doctor advises otherwise.
Don't take over-the-counter preparations or herbal remedies without discussing it first with your healthcare team.

It's recommended that you carry a biological therapy alert card so anyone treating you will know that you're on adalimumab – you can get a card from your rheumatology department.

Vaccinations

It's best to discuss vaccinations with your healthcare team before starting adalimumab.

It's usually recommended that people on adalimumab avoid live vaccinations such as yellow fever. However, sometimes a live vaccine may be necessary (for example, rubella immunisation in women of childbearing age).

If you're offered shingles vaccination (Zostavax) it's best to have this before starting adalimumab. Shingles vaccination isn't recommended for people who are already on adalimumab.

Pneumococcal vaccine (which protects against the commonest cause of pneumonia) and yearly flu vaccines are safe and recommended.

Having an operation

Talk this over with your specialists. It's likely you'll be advised to stop adalimumab for a time before and after surgery.

Alcohol

There's no known interaction between adalimumab and alcohol.

However, if you're also taking methotrexate, you should keep within the recommended limits (no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for adults) because methotrexate and alcohol can interact and affect your liver. In some circumstances your doctor may advise lower limits.

Fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding

If you're planning to try for a baby, if you become pregnant, or if you're thinking of breastfeeding we suggest you discuss your medications with your rheumatologist.

Current guidelines state that adalimumab can be used during pregnancy and in men trying to father a child.

If it's used during pregnancy it will usually be stopped after six months. If it's used after this, then it's possible (but not proven) that it may increase the risk of infection in the newborn baby. However, if there's concern that your arthritis may flare up if adalimumab is stopped then you can continue with it throughout pregnancy. In this case, your baby shouldn't have any live vaccines until they're seven months old.

Women who are also on methotrexate should stop this drug at least three months before trying for a baby. The guidelines state there's no need for men to stop methotrexate when trying to father a baby.

There's only limited information about the use of adalimumab by women who are breastfeeding. Small amounts of the drug may pass into the breast milk, but this doesn't appear to be harmful. If you were also taking methotrexate before your pregnancy you should not re-start this until you've stopped breastfeeding.