Arthritis is one of the most common health conditions experienced by people from all walks of life. It is estimated that 350 million people worldwide are coping with the disease, and in the US alone, 40 million people are affected by arthritis. Thankfully, there are ways to manage the symptoms that come with it, including joint pain and stiffness. For severe rheumatoid arthritis, a drug called Azathioprine is commonly prescribed by doctors. But while this type of medication can certainly help ease joint pain, the Food and Drug Administration warns that long-term use of the drug may increase the risk of developing certain forms of cancer.

Now, a new study has further proof of the drug’s link to skin cancer. While those involved in the research aren’t advising against the use of azathioprine, it is important to know how to lessen your risks of developing a more serious health condition. If you’re currently taking azathioprine for arthritis, here’s what you need to know to stay safe and healthy while on your medication.

What’s The Connection Between Azathioprine And Skin Cancer?

In the research published in Nature Communications in September 2018, it was found that use of the drug leaves a mutational signature in cases of cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, or cSCC. This type of skin cancer is quite common, and in the US, the annual incidence of cSCC is estimated to be 700,000 and is projected to increase every year. Because of the recent findings, one of the researchers, Charlotte Proby, who is a Professor of Dermatology in the School of Medicine at the University of Dundee in London, said that all physicians who prescribe the drug should give proper advice on sun protection and UVA avoidance year round. Proby also reiterated that she and her colleagues are not advising those who are taking the drug to stop treatment.

“As with all medications the risks must be balanced against the benefits, particularly with the need to treat potentially life-threatening diseases with an effective drug,” said the expert.

Apart from arthritis, azathioprine is also being currently used to treat inflammatory bowel disease and vasculitis. It is also taken by those who’ve undergone a kidney transplant to keep the immune system from attacking the newly transplanted organ.

Protecting Yourself From Skin Cancer

If you’re taking azathioprine, it’s important to know how to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays, and possibly even spray tan, given that the drug can increase your photosensitivity. Staying indoors when the sun’s rays are at its strongest—between 10 am to 2 pm—is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. Wearing protective clothing when heading outside is also a must. Don long-sleeved shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and trousers before going out.

Using sunscreen with a high SPF (minimum of SPF 50) is also highly recommended. You can also layer your sun protection if you wish. This means smoothing on an SPF lotion before leaving the house, then reapplying sun protection later in the day using a spray-on sunscreen. Applying an SPF-enriched foundation or BB cream on top of your facial sunscreen can also help to further protect your face from UVA and UVB rays.

Staying Healthy While Taking Azathioprine

For now, taking azathioprine to cope with rheumatoid arthritis may be one of the best ways to relieve the severe pain that comes with this disease. However, it is important to understand the drug’s side effects and come up with ways to prevent the onset of other serious health conditions. A healthy diet, gentle exercise, and protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful rays will all contribute to a better quality of life while taking the medication. If you experience excessive weight loss, a skin rash, fever, or a severe allergic reaction while taking azathioprine, consult your doctor immediately.

Resources & Further Reading

1. National Arthritis Month, MedicineNet, https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=23220

2. Azathioprine, Oral Tablet, Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/health/azathioprine-oral-tablet

3. Study links widely-used drug azathioprine to skin cancers, Science Daily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180910093513.htm

4. About CSCC, Advanced CSCC, https://www.advancedcscc.com/about

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