The risk of infections associated with rheumatoid arthritis, with its comorbidity and treatment

Rheumatology (Oxford). 2013 Jan;52(1):53-61. doi: 10.1093/rheumatology/kes305. Epub 2012 Nov 28.


RA is known to be associated with an increased risk of serious infection. Even more than 50 years ago, observational studies showed a greater than 2-fold increased risk of serious infection in RA. This was reinforced by various subsequent cohort studies. The elevated susceptibility of patients with RA can be explained by the pathobiology of the disease itself, the impact of chronic comorbid conditions, as well as sequelae of immunosuppressive treatment. It has been suggested that premature ageing of the immune system in RA contributes to weakened protection against infectious organisms. In addition, chronic comorbid conditions such as diabetes or chronic lung or kidney disease, disease-related functional disability, as well as lifestyle factors such as smoking, increase the risk in individual patients. For a long time glucocorticoids (GCs) have been used as potent immunosuppressive drugs in RA. There is evidence that they increase the risk of serious infections up to 4-fold in a dose-dependent manner. TNF-α inhibitors increase the serious infection risk up to 2-fold. They have, however, the potential to outweigh their risk when higher GC doses can be tapered down. If patients need higher dosages of GCs in addition to treatment with biologic agents, their risk of infection is substantial. This combination should be used carefully and, if possible, avoided in patients with additional risk factors such as older age or comorbid conditions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Antirheumatic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / complications*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / drug therapy
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Infections / complications*
  • Infections / epidemiology
  • Risk
  • Smoking


  • Antirheumatic Agents