Current Drug Therapy

Hydroxychloroquine: An old drug with new relevance

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Other adverse effects

Cutaneous hyperpigmentation can occur with hydroxychloroquine use (Figure 1). The hyperpigmentation appears to be due to local bruising following deposition of iron in the soft tissue.

Chronic facial skin hyperpigmentation
Figure 1. Chronic facial skin hyperpigmentation in a patient with a lifetime hydroxychloroquine dose of 2,000 g. Hyperpigmentation and retinopathy may occur independently of each other, but a high cumulative medication dose is a risk factor for both conditions.
A case-control study34 in 24 patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and hydroxychloroquine-associated skin pigmentation found that 23 (96%) of those with pigmentation had conditions that predisposed to bruising; 22 (92%) also experienced local bruising before the appearance of pigmentation. An association between pigmentation and the use of oral anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs was found. The mechanism by which hydroxychloroquine either encourages bruising or prevents proper healing and resorption of pigment is unclear.

While the pigmentation may persist permanently and cause an undesirable cosmetic effect, it has not been associated with other adverse outcomes.

Myopathy is a rare adverse effect. In one case series, 3 of 214 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine developed hydroxychloroquine-induced myopathy.35 Over the duration of their therapy, this was equivalent to an incidence of 1 case of myopathy in 100 patient-years of therapy. Myopathy improves with discontinuation of therapy, though it can persist for weeks, likely because of hydroxychloroquine’s prolonged elimination half-life.

Cardiomyopathy, specifically neurocardio­myopathy, is also an extremely rare adverse effect of hydroxychloroquine use. The mechanism is believed to be associated with the effect of hydroxychloroquine on lysosomal action, leading to an acquired lysosomal storage disorder with the typical cardiac hypertrophy and conduction abnormalities associated with this family of diseases.36

Acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis is another rare complication of hydroxychloroquine therapy. The appearance of the reaction is similar to that of pustular psoriasis, with pustules overlying flaking and scaling skin. It usually resolves within 2 weeks after cessation of hydroxychloroquine therapy. In a select few cases, the reaction persists or waxes and wanes over a period of weeks to months, and longer durations of recovery are thought to be due to hydroxychloroquine’s long half-life, as in hydroxychloroquine-induced myopathy.37

In view of this rare reaction, manufacturers of hydroxychloroquine recommend caution when using the drug in patients with psoriasis.1

Hematologic abnormalities. In very rare cases, hydroxychloroquine is associated with hematologic abnormalities including agranulocytosis, anemia, aplastic anemia, leukopenia, and thrombocytopenia.1

While no specific guidelines exist, caution is warranted when using hydroxychloroquine in patients with porphyria. Additionally, hydroxychloroquine and other antimalarials including primaquine have been associated with hemolysis in patients with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency. The risk of hemolysis is generally considered low except at high hydroxychloroquine doses in patients with severe G6PD deficiency.38

Considerations before hydroxychloroquine use

For the above reasons, manufacturers recommended baseline and routine blood counts, and some providers screen patients for G6PD deficiency when prescribing hydroxychloroquine (Table 3).


Hydroxychloroquine is in pregnancy category C. Information is limited, and in view of the risks, the manufacturer says that it should be avoided in pregnancy.1 Nevertheless, it is generally considered safe during pregnancy, and its benefits may make it acceptable to continue in a patient who becomes pregnant, in spite of the possible risks.

We favor continuing hydroxychloroquine. This drug has been associated with improved maternal and fetal outcomes in lupus patients. Its use during pregnancy has not been associated with congenital malformations. The adverse visual effects of long-term hydroxychloroquine use, namely retinopathy, have never been reported in children as a consequence of exposure in utero.

In addition, hydroxychloroquine is transmitted only in minute quantities in breast milk.39 In pregnant women with systemic lupus erythematosus, hydroxychloroquine was associated with a lower risk of adverse outcomes, including preterm delivery and intrauterine growth restriction.40 However, hydroxychloroquine is far more toxic when ingested directly by infants than in adults.1

Maternal outcomes are also improved with the use of hydroxychloroquine. Stopping hydroxychloroquine during pregnancy in women with systemic lupus erythematosus is associated with significantly higher disease activity—fully twice as high as in those who continue hydroxychloroquine.41 These study results were corroborated in a small randomized trial in which pregnant women with lupus on placebo had significantly higher lupus disease activity scores than those pregnant women who were given hydroxychloroquine.42 The women taking hydroxychloroquine experienced no severe lupus flares for the duration of their pregnancies.

These findings suggest not only that hydroxychloroquine is safe in pregnancy, but also that it should be continued in lupus patients during pregnancy to prevent disease flares and adverse fetal outcomes.

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