Current Drug Therapy

Hydroxychloroquine: An old drug with new relevance

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Benefit in rheumatoid arthritis

Though there is less evidence, hydroxychloroquine has also shown benefit in rheumatoid arthritis, where it can be used by itself in mild disease or as part of combination therapy with active arthritis. Compared with biologic therapy in patients with early aggressive rheumatoid arthritis, triple therapy with methotrexate, sulfasalazine, and hydroxychloroquine was nearly as effective in terms of quality of life, and it cost only one-third as much, saving $20,000 per year of therapy per patient.13

Hydroxychloroquine has also been compared directly with chloroquine, its closest relation, in a large study incorporating patients with rheumatoid arthritis and patients with systemic lupus erythematosus. Patients using chloroquine experienced significantly more side effects, though it did prove marginally more effective.14

No benefit shown in Sjögren syndrome

Unfortunately, despite widespread use, hydroxychloroquine has not demonstrated positive clinical effects when used to treat primary Sjögren syndrome. Most notably, a 2014 randomized controlled trial of hydroxychloroquine vs placebo in 120 Sjögren patients found no significant improvement in primary symptoms of dryness, pain, or fatigue after 6 months of therapy.15

Metabolic benefits

Unexpectedly, hydroxychloroquine is associated with multiple metabolic benefits including improved lipid profiles and lower blood glucose levels. These findings, in addition to a reduced incidence of thrombosis, were initially reported in the Baltimore Lupus Cohort in 1996.16 Specifically, longitudinal evaluation of a cohort of lupus patients showed that hydroxychloroquine use was associated with a 7.6% reduction in total cholesterol and a 13.7% reduction in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) over 3 months of therapy.17

Similar findings, including a reduction in LDL-C and an increase in high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, were strongly associated with the addition of hydroxychloroquine to methotrexate or to methotrexate and etanercept in a large cohort of rheumatoid arthritis patients followed over 2 years of therapy.18

In nondiabetic women with systemic lupus erythematosus or rheumatoid arthritis, average blood glucose was significantly lower in those taking hydroxychloroquine than in nonusers. The incidence of insulin resistance was also lower, but the difference was not statistically significant.19

Some have suggested that hydroxychloroquine may prevent diabetes mellitus. In a retrospective case series, compared with rheumatoid arthritis patients not taking the drug, patients treated with hydroxychloroquine for more than 4 years had a 25% lower risk of developing diabetes mellitus.20

In view of these metabolic benefits, especially regarding lipid regulation, and the above described antithrombotic properties of hydroxychloroquine, some researchers have recently hypothesized that hydroxychloroquine may be of benefit in patients with coronary artery disease.21 They suggested that the inflammatory contribution to the mechanism of coronary artery disease could be lessened by hydroxychloroquine even in patients without lupus erythematosus or rheumatoid arthritis.


Understanding the pharmacologic properties of hydroxychloroquine is key to using it appropriately in clinical practice.

The half-life of elimination of hydroxychloroquine is 40 to 50 days, with half of the drug excreted renally in a concentration-dependent fashion.22,23 The drug reaches 95% of its steady-state concentration by about 6 months of therapy. Shorter durations of therapy do not provide adequate time for the drug to achieve steady-state concentration and may not allow patients and providers time to see its full clinical results. Therefore, its manufacturers recommend a 6-month trial of therapy to adequately determine if the drug improves symptoms.1

The oral bioavailability of hydroxychloroquine is about 75%, but pharmacokinetics vary among individuals.22,23 It has been suggested that this variability affects the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. In a study of 300 patients with cutaneous lupus erythematosus, those whose treatment failed had significantly lower blood concentrations of hydroxychloroquine, while those who achieved complete remission had significantly higher concentrations.24

Another study found that titrating doses to target therapeutic blood concentrations can reduce disease activity in cutaneous lupus erythematosus.25 Measuring the blood concentration of hydroxychloroquine is not common in clinical practice but may have a role in select patients in whom initial therapy using a standard dosing regimen does not produce the desired results.


Hydroxychloroquine has numerous adverse effects, necessitating vigilance on the part of the prescriber. Most commonly reported are retinopathy, hyperpigmentation, myopathy, and skin reactions.1


Retinopathy’s irreversibility—the threat of permanent vision loss—and its substantial prevalence in patients with a large drug exposure history, have marked retinopathy as the most concerning potential toxicity. The risk of ocular toxicity increases with the cumulative hydroxychloroquine dose. The prevalence of retinopathy in those using the drug less than 10 years is less than 2%; in contrast, the prevalence in patients with more than 20 years of exposure is reported to be as high as 20%.26

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has long stated that retinopathy is a significant risk of hydroxychloroquine therapy and that patients taking hydroxychloroquine should therefore undergo routine retinal and visual field screening by an ophthalmologist.

Recommended screening for retinopathy in patients on hydroxychloroquine

Currently, initial screening followed by yearly screening beginning 5 years thereafter is recommended for patients at low risk of toxicity (Table 1).27 Patients determined by an ophthalmologist to be at higher risk of retinopathy should be screened yearly. As identified by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, major risk factors for retinopathy include duration of use, concomitant tamoxifen exposure, significant renal disease, and preexisting retinal and macular disease.26,28

Recommendations for hydroxychloroquine dosing and screening were recently revised, for 2 reasons. Initially, its manufacturers recommended that hydroxychloroquine dosage be no higher than 6.5 mg/kg of ideal body weight to prevent retinopathy.1,29,30 However, it has recently been demonstrated that real body weight is a better predictor of risk of retinopathy than ideal body weight when dosing hydroxychloroquine, perhaps because of the increasing variance of real body weight in our patient population.26

Antimalarial dosing

Further, an atypical pattern of retinopathy called pericentral retinopathy is more common in Asians. A study of about 200 patients with a history of hydroxychloroquine retinopathy, including 36 Asian patients, found that the pericentral pattern occurred in half the Asian patients but only 2% of the white patients.31 The mechanism for this finding is unclear, but because pericentral retinopathy spares the macula, it can be missed using standard screening methods. Therefore, the American Academy of Ophthalmology now recommends that the dose limit be reduced from 6.5 mg/kg of ideal body weight to no more than 5.0 mg/kg of real body weight (Table 2).28

It is also recommended that screening methods such as automated visual fields and optical coherence tomography extend their fields beyond the macula in Asian patients to ensure that pericentral retinopathy is not missed.28

Optical coherence tomography is a particularly useful tool in the ocular evaluation of patients taking hydroxychloroquine. It can detect subtle changes such as thinning of the foveal photoreceptor outer segment, thickening of the retinal pigment epithelium, and loss of the macular ganglion cell–inner plexiform layer before there are visible signs of retinopathy and before symptoms arise.32

Currently, these guidelines are underutilized in clinical practice. Physician adherence to ophthalmologic guidelines is reported at about 50%.33 This statistic is jarring, given the potential for permanent loss of vision in those with hydroxychloroquine-mediated retinopathy, and demonstrates the importance of reinforcing proper understanding of the use of hydroxychloroquine in clinical practice.

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