Risk-benefit assessment of drugs used in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease

Drug Saf. May-Jun 1991;6(3):192-219. doi: 10.2165/00002018-199106030-00005.


Although the aetiology of inflammatory bowel disease remains elusive, many agents are available for the control of symptoms and inflammation. Knowledge of drug pharmacology, indications and side effects is essential to ensure the best possible clinical care while minimising toxicity and inappropriate use. Sulfasalazine consists of sulfapyridine linked to mesalazine (5-aminosalicylic acid) via an azobond. Its use is indicated in the treatment of mild to moderately active ulcerative colitis and in the prevention of relapse in patients with quiescent disease. Patients with mild to moderate colonic or ileocolonic Crohn's disease also benefit from this drug, as do a proportion of patients with isolated small bowel disease. Sulfasalazine has not been uniformly effective in preventing relapse in Crohn's disease, although many clinicians continue its use in patients who respond initially. A high incidence of side effects which limit therapy include intolerance, hypersensitivity reactions and impairment of male infertility. The newer aminosalicylates offer targeted delivery of mesalazine to the bowel, with fewer side effects. Topical mesalazine has proved extremely effective in patients with distal ulcerative colitis; oral forms are effective in the treatment of mild to moderately active ulcerative colitis and in relapse. Both types appear to be effective in the treatment of Crohn's disease, and possibly in preventing relapse. There is no current clinical advantage of one mesalazine preparation over another, nor is there an indication for their use in sulfasalazine-treated patients who have satisfactory response without adverse effects. Corticosteroids are indicated for more severe disease activity where the aminosalicylates have limited efficacy-specifically to induce remission in patients with severe or refractory ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. They should not be used to maintain disease remission or in the prevention of postoperative recurrence. Topical corticosteroids allow their local use in distal colitis with minimal systemic side effects. Long term use is limited by side effects, many of which are dose related, although alternate-day therapy may lessen the incidence. Immunosuppressive agents are beneficial for the treatment of refractory inflammatory bowel disease unresponsive to other medications, and may also facilitate the withdrawal of steroids in refractory patients. Mercaptopurine has an added benefit in the treatment of Crohn's disease fistulae; the role of cyclosporin in bowel disease has not been established and its use cannot currently be recommended. The potential toxicity of immunosuppressive agents warrants careful consideration of their use by both physician and patient. Metronidazole is indicated for the treatment of mild to moderate Crohn's disease, including perineal disease. Common side effects include peripheral neuropathy and nausea.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / adverse effects
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use*
  • Aminosalicylic Acids / adverse effects
  • Aminosalicylic Acids / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / adverse effects
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / adverse effects
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / drug therapy*
  • Sulfasalazine / adverse effects
  • Sulfasalazine / therapeutic use*


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Aminosalicylic Acids
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Sulfasalazine