Association of Higher Hydroxychloroquine Blood Levels With Reduced Thrombosis Risk in Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Arthritis Rheumatol. 2021 Jun;73(6):997-1004. doi: 10.1002/art.41621. Epub 2021 May 2.


Objective: Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) has a primary role in the prophylaxis and treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and may be protective against thrombosis in SLE. Optimal weight-based dosing of HCQ is unknown. This study was undertaken to examine the usefulness of HCQ blood monitoring in predicting thrombosis risk in a longitudinal SLE cohort.

Methods: HCQ levels were serially quantified from EDTA whole blood by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. The mean HCQ blood levels calculated prior to thrombosis or until the last visit were compared using t-tests between patients with and those without thrombosis. Pooled logistic regression was used to analyze the association between rates of thrombosis and HCQ blood level. Rate ratios (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (95% CIs) were calculated.

Results: In 739 patients with SLE, thrombosis occurred in 38 patients (5.1%). The mean ± SD HCQ blood level was lower in patients who developed thrombosis versus those who did not develop thrombosis (720 ± 489 ng/ml versus 935 ± 580 ng/ml; P = 0.025). Thrombosis rates were reduced by 13% for every 200-ng/ml increase in the most recent HCQ blood level (RR 0.87 [95% CI 0.78-0.98], P = 0.025) and by 13% for mean HCQ blood level (RR 0.87 [95% CI 0.76-1.00], P = 0.056). Thrombotic events were reduced by 69% in patients with mean HCQ blood levels ≥1,068 ng/ml versus those with levels <648 ng/ml (RR 0.31 [95% CI 0.11-0.86], P = 0.024). This remained significant after adjustment for confounders (RR 0.34 [95% CI 0.12-0.94], P = 0.037).

Conclusion: Low HCQ blood levels are associated with thrombotic events in SLE. Longitudinal measurement of HCQ levels may allow for personalized HCQ dosing strategies. Recommendations for empirical dose reduction may reduce or eliminate the benefits of HCQ in this high-risk population.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antirheumatic Agents / blood*
  • Antirheumatic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Female
  • Fingers / blood supply
  • Fingers / pathology
  • Gangrene / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Hydroxychloroquine / blood*
  • Hydroxychloroquine / therapeutic use
  • Logistic Models
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / drug therapy*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myocardial Infarction / epidemiology
  • Protective Factors
  • Pulmonary Embolism / epidemiology
  • Stroke / epidemiology
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry
  • Thrombosis / epidemiology*
  • Toes / blood supply
  • Toes / pathology
  • Venous Thrombosis / epidemiology


  • Antirheumatic Agents
  • Hydroxychloroquine