Rheumatoid Arthritis Drugs During Pregnancy and Lactation: A Review of Safety Guidelines


The immunosuppressant azathioprine is considered relatively safe to use during pregnancy but not during lactation.3 A recent meta-analysis of 312 women with IBD taking azathioprine showed no increased risk for spontaneous abortion or low birth weight. However, an increased risk for congenital abnormalities was found in women taking the drug when compared with women with IBD not on medications (OR, 2.95; 95% CI, 1.03-8.43).8

Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) Inhibitors/Anti-TNF Therapy

TNF inhibitors include infliximab, etanercept, adalimumab, golimumab, and certolizumab. Certolizumab may have a safety advantage, as smaller amounts of the drug are known to pass into fetal circulation.9

TNF inhibitors have not been associated with congenital anomalies in recent studies, including 2 systematic reviews.10,11 However, there is a concern that immunosuppression from TNF inhibitors may be transmitted to the infant after birth.2 Therefore, live vaccines are not recommended until 6 months after birth if TNF inhibitors were used during pregnancy.2

TNF inhibitor use during periconception is considered low risk. In severe cases, use has been continued until the third trimester, although long-term safety data in children are lacking.2 Theoretic safety risk during lactation is low.2

A recent large systematic review on pregnancy outcomes (including preterm birth, spontaneous abortion, and low birth weight) in women with multiple immune-related diseases showed similar outcomes when comparing the use of anti-TNF-α agents and non-use of these agents.12 Rheumatology Advisor spoke with Atsushi Sakuraba, MD, PhD, from the University of Chicago Medical Center in Illinois about the study. “We knew that the risks for TNF users were comparable to non-TNF users, but we’ve shown that there is a higher risk in TNF users compared to the general population. While it is difficult to ascertain the risks of the disease itself and medications, this is important information for the treating physician and patient when discussing birth outcomes.”

When asked if he would recommend withholding anti-TNF-α agents during the third trimester, he replied: “No, withholding these drugs in the severe patient may not be a good option as it may lead to flares, and in the more stable patient, I would recommend adjusting the timing of the last dose or hold one dose right before delivery to minimize transmission of the drug to the newborn.”

Ashima Makol, MD, assistant professor of medicine and consultant in rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, also talked with Rheumatology Advisor about withholding anti-TNF-α agents during the third trimester. “We know that the highest amounts of anti-TNF agents cross the placenta during the second and third trimester, therefore use during conception and the first trimester seems most safe. Etanercept and certolizumab have the lowest rate of transplacental passage and may be used with less concern. My suggestion is to hold anti-TNF therapy in the third trimester and then restart during the postpartum period at 3 to 4 weeks unless there are any concerns for postpregnancy complications.”

Related Articles


Rituximab is a monoclonal antibody with recommendations to wait 12 months after discontinuation before attempting pregnancy.2,3 Insufficient data are available endorsing rituximab use during pregnancy or justifying its use during lactation.2,3


Abatacept is a cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen. After taking abatacept, it is recommended to wait 14 weeks before attempting pregnancy2,3 and to avoid its use during lactation because there are insufficient data.2


Tocilizumab is an interleukin-6 receptor antibody, with recommendations to wait 3 months before attempting pregnancy. It should be avoided during lactation because of insufficient data.1,2

Anakinra, Tocilizumab, Tofacitinib

Insufficient data are available to support the safe use of these medications during pregnancy.3


Continued monitoring of pregnant women with RA is recommended. In addition, studies further investigating the safety of RA drugs — particularly DMARDs — before and during pregnancy, and during lactation are mandated to provide patients with clearer guidance.

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