Treating Behçet's disease
There is currently no cure for Behçet's disease, but a number of treatments are available to help relieve many symptoms of the condition and reduce the risk of serious complications.
Your treatment plan
Once a diagnosis of Behçet's disease has been confirmed, it is likely you will be referred to several different specialists who have experience of treating the condition. They will help draw up a specific treatment plan for you.
The specialists involved in your care may include:
- a dermatologist – a doctor who specialises in treating skin conditions
- an oral medicine specialist – a doctor or dentist who specialises in conditions affecting the mouth
- a rheumatologist – a doctor who specialises in treating joint conditions and conditions affecting the entire body
- an ophthalmologist – a doctor who specialises in treating eye conditions
- a neurologist – a doctor who specialises in treating conditions that affect the nervous system and brain
Where necessary, it may be helpful for assessments made by a number of these specialists to be scheduled at a single visit to help with reaching a swift diagnosis or for planning treatment.
Your treatment plan will usually involve the use of a combination of different medications. Depending on the type and severity of your symptoms, you may only need to take medication when you have a flare-up.
Alternatively, you may have to take medication on a long-term basis to stop serious complications developing, such as vision loss.
A number of different medications can be used to treat the various symptoms of Behçet's disease, but the main types of medication used can be broadly divided into corticosteroids, immunosuppressants and biological therapies.
Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory medications that can be useful in reducing the inflammation associated with Behçet's disease.
Depending on the specific symptoms being treated, corticosteroids are available as:
- topical corticosteroids – applied directly to the area affected as eye drops, creams or gels
- oral corticosteroids – these reduce inflammation throughout the body and come as tablets or capsules
Occasionally, corticosteroid injections may also be used.
Side effects depend on the form of corticosteroid you are taking. Side effects associated with topical corticosteroids are uncommon, but long-term use may lead to problems such as a thinning of your skin.
The long-term use of oral corticosteroids is associated with some potentially more serious side effects, including:
Immunosuppressants are a type of medication that reduces the activity of the immune system, which in turn interrupts the inflammation process that causes most of the symptoms of Behçet’s disease.
Examples of immunosuppressants used to treat Behçet's disease include azathioprine, ciclosporine, methotrexate, mycophenolate mofetil and thalidomide.
These medications are usually available as tablets, capsules and injections. Colchicine, an anti-inflammatory medication often used for gout, may also be beneficial.
While immunosuppressants can be useful in treating a wide range of Behçet's disease symptoms, they can also cause some potentially significant side effects.
For this reason, a patient will require careful counselling about potential side effects and monitoring through blood tests. This is an aspect that is often co-ordinated by a specialist nurse.
General side effects of these medications can include:
- effects on blood cells and liver function (regular monitoring of blood tests may be required)
- increased risk of infections – you should report any symptoms of a possible infection to your GP or healthcare team as soon as possible
- feeling sick and vomiting
- abdominal (tummy) pain
- hair loss, which is usually temporary
- pins and needles
- muscle cramps and weakness
Some immunosuppressants can also cause birth defects and should not be taken if you are pregnant or are planning a pregnancy.
If you are taking any of these medications, you should ensure you talk to your specialist or GP about the possible effects of your medication on a potential pregnancy.
Biological therapies are a newer type of medication that target the biological processes involved in the process of inflammation more selectively.
For example, one group of medications called tumour necrosis factor alpha inhibitors (TNFa-inhibitors) work by targeting the antibodies thought to cause much of the inflammation associated with Behçet's disease.
Biological therapies used to treat Behçet's disease include infliximab and interferon alpha. These may either be given directly into a vein (intravenously) or by injection under the skin (subcutaneous injection) at varying intervals.
While they are often effective, biological therapies are also very expensive. It is therefore likely your local hospital will only agree to fund biological therapies on the NHS if your symptoms are severe and other medications have been ineffective.
There is an agreed pathway for the funding of these therapies, directly linked to the three National Centres of Excellence where decisions are made by clinicians.
Biological therapies can also cause a range of side effects, including:
As with immunosuppressant treatment, you should promptly report any symptoms of a possible infection to your GP or healthcare team as soon as possible.
Treating specific symptoms
The specific medications used for Behçet's disease vary depend on the symptom being treated. The treatments for some of the main symptoms associated with the condition are outlined below.
Ulcers and skin lesions
Topical corticosteroids – such as creams, lozenges, mouthwashes and sprays – are usually the first treatment recommended for mouth and genital ulcers.
Some people find that using a corticosteroid inhaler is effective. These inhalers are commonly used to treat asthma and are normally used to spray the medication into the lungs. However, rather than inhaling the steroids, you can use the inhaler to spray the steroids directly on to an ulcer.
If you have red, tender swellings on your legs (erythema nodosum), you may be prescribed colchicine tablets to reduce the inflammation of your skin.
For severe ulcers and lesions that do not respond to other treatments, other immunosuppressant tablets or biological therapies may be recommended.
Because of the potential risk of vision loss in serious cases, any eye inflammation caused by Behçet's disease should be carefully monitored by an ophthalmologist.
Treatment for eye problems will often involve taking azathioprine and corticosteroid tablets, although corticosteroid eye drops may also be useful.
In severe cases where these treatments haven't helped, ciclosporine or biological therapies may also be recommended.
For people with joint pain caused by Behçet's disease, conventional painkillers such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may sometimes help relieve the pain.
Daily colchicine tablets can also help by reducing the inflammation in your joints.
In severe cases where these treatments haven't helped, azathioprine or biological therapies may be recommended.
A number of different medications may be used to help reduce inflammation of the stomach and bowel caused by Behçet's disease, including corticosteroids, immunosuppressants and biological therapies.
Sometimes the inflammation in your bowel causes it to become damaged and bleed. Medical treatment is usually successful, though rarely emergency surgery may be needed to stop the bleeding and remove the affected section of bowel.
In cases of Behçet's disease, headaches are usually treated in the same way as migraines. This means there are two types of medication that can be used:
- medication to prevent the symptoms of a headache occurring, such as beta-blockers
- medication to help relieve the headache, such as NSAIDs and a type of medication called triptans
Read more about treating migraine and preventing migraine.
It's not entirely clear whether blood clots associated with Behçet's disease should be treated in the same way as blood clots caused by other conditions, or whether using medication to treat the underlying inflammation is more appropriate.
Normally blood clots are treated with a type of medication called an anticoagulant, which helps thin the blood and reduces the risk of the blood clot blocking the flow of blood.
However, the use of anticoagulants for Behçet's disease is controversial because the blood clots are slightly different to other clots – they tend to stick to the side of the blood vessel walls, rather than break off and travel through the bloodstream.
Using anticoagulants in Behçet's disease could also potentially increase the risk of any aneurysms rupturing and causing serious internal bleeding.
Blood clots are therefore often treated with a combination of corticosteroid or immunosuppressant tablets to reduce the inflammation in the blood vessels.
Aneurysms caused by Behçet's disease will normally be treated with a combination of corticosteroid and immunosuppressant tablets, or infusions of cyclophosphamide to reduce inflammation in the affected blood vessel and stop the aneurysm getting worse.
Surgery or procedures to repair or bypass the aneurysm using small tubes called stents, or to block it off and prevent it bleeding, may also be considered depending on where in the body the aneurysm is found and how likely it is to rupture. In general, this approach is often combined with medical treatment to reduce or prevent the risk of recurrence.
For more information about how surgery is used to treat some common types of aneurysm, see treating brain aneurysms and treating abdominal aortic aneurysms.
Central nervous system inflammation
Relatively minor symptoms of central nervous system inflammation, such as double vision, may get better on their own without the need for treatment.
However, more serious symptoms, such as paralysis and behavioural changes, will usually require treatment with medication. This will often be in the form of corticosteroid or immunosuppressant injections, or biological therapies.
Pregnancy and fertility
Fertility is usually unaffected in women with Behçet's disease, but it is important that any pregnancy is planned where possible. This is because many of the medications that are used to treat the condition, such as colchicine and thalidomide, can cause birth defects.
It is therefore recommended that you use at least one reliable method of contraception until you decide that you want to have a baby. You should discuss your plans to have a baby with your care team, who will be able to adjust your treatment plan to make your pregnancy as safe as possible.
It is difficult to predict what effect pregnancy will have on the symptoms of Behçet's disease. For example, one study found that symptoms improved in around one-third of women, while one-third experienced a worsening of their symptoms, and symptoms stayed the same in the remainder of women.
There is little evidence that having Behçet's disease increases your risk of pregnancy-related complications, although there is a very small chance of your baby being born with a temporary condition called neonatal Behçet's disease.
The fertility of men with Behçet's disease may be affected. This can be the result of the condition itself or of a side effect of some of the immunosuppressant medications. Colchicine may temporarily lower sperm count, but this will often improve when treatment is stopped.
Where fertility is affected, further investigation – and, in some cases, fertility treatment such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – may be needed to conceive successfully.
Read more about treating infertility.
Neonatal Behçet's disease
There is a possibility that a baby can be born with a type of Behçet's disease that can cause ulcers on the baby's genitals and mouth. This type of Behçet's disease, known as neonatal Behçet's disease, is very rare, with only one or two cases being reported every few years.
Corticosteroids can be used to help relieve symptoms of neonatal Behçet's disease. The condition usually resolves within six to eight weeks of the birth.
Page last reviewed: 01/09/2014
Next review due: 01/09/2016