Comparative tolerability of systemic treatments for plaque-type psoriasis

Stacy L. McClure, Jayme Valentine, Kenneth B. Gordon*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Psoriasis is a chronic, debilitating skin condition that affects millions of people and is attributed to both genetic and environmental factors. Topical therapy is generally considered to be the first-line treatment of psoriasis. However, many patients do not respond to topical therapy or have disease so extensive that topical therapy is not practical. For these patients, systemic therapy is indicated. Presently, there are four available systemic treatments, psoralen with ultraviolet A (PUVA), methotrexate, oral retinoids (acitretin), and cyclosporin. Unfortunately, all of these treatments have significant potential adverse effects. PUVA may acutely cause nausea, pruritis and sunburn. More chronic and concerning is the development of PUVA lentigines, ocular complications and skin cancer. Non-melanoma skin cancer has been directly linked to PUVA; however, the association with melonoma is more elusive. Methotrexate use most notably carries the risk of hepatic fibrosis and cirrhosis, which is not always evident on liver function tests. Other more rare, but potentially life-threatening adverse effects include pancytopenia, lymphoproliferative disorders and acute pneumonitis. The addition of folic acid may help to reduce the risk of increasing liver enzymes and haematological toxicity seen in those taking methotrexate. Both methotrexate and oral retinoids are teratogenic and should never be used in pregnancy. Oral retinoids are probably the least effective available systemic medication for the treatment of plaque psoriasis. The effects are improved with the addition of other systemic therapies. Acitretin has replaced the formerly used etretinate primarily because of the significantly shorter half-life. The adverse effects are generally mild and reversible, making the drug fairly safe for long-term use. The most commonly seen adverse effects include elevated serum lipids, generalised xerosis and alopecia. Bony abnormalities, while somewhat controversial, have also been described and include diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, skeletal calcifications and osteoporosis. Cyclosporin is the most recently approved systemic medication for plaque psoriasis. The nephrotoxicity associated with the use of cyclosporin can be minimised when used in lower doses and for a limited duration. Hypertension is usually mild and can be seen in up to about one-third of patients receiving long-term therapy. Cutaneous and internal malignancies have also been reported with cyclosporin and tend to be correlated with duration of treatment. In this review, we will examine the potential adverse effects with these US Food and Drug Administration-approved treatments in adults, with specific emphasis on the controversies that surround long-term therapy with these agents and their cumulative adverse effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)913-927
Number of pages15
JournalDrug Safety
Issue number13
StatePublished - 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)
  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology


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