Tocilizumab

Drug Name
Tocilizumab

Brand Name(s)
Actemra®

Drug Class
Biologic

Tocilizumab is used to treat inflammatory types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

  • What types of arthritis is tocilizumab used for?

    Tocilizumab is used to treat inflammatory types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

    For RA, tocilizumab may be used as monotherapy or in combination with DMARD therapy, such as methotrexate (MTX).

  • How is tocilizumab administered?

    Tocilizumab is given by infusion once a month or by subcutaneous (s.c.) injection (meaning in the fatty layer of tissue just under the skin) once every one to two weeks.

  • What is the typical dose and when do I take it?

    When given by infusion the dose of tocilizumab depends on your body weight. The starting dose is 4 mg/kg, which can be increased up to 8 mg/kg if an adequate response is not achieved. The medication comes in a single use vial for administration by infusion. Each infusion takes about 60 minutes.

    When given by injection the dose of tocilizumab is 162 mg. If you weigh less than 100 kg you will require an injection every two weeks, followed by an increase to every week based on clinical response. If you weigh 100 kg or more you will require an injection every week. The medication comes in single use pre-filled syringes for administration by injection.

    Tocilizumab pre-filled syringes cannot be used for infusions and the vial for infusions cannot be used for injection.

  • How long will it take to work?

    As with all of the biologics, you may not feel the effects of the tocilizumab right away. Some people begin to feel the effects of the medication fairly quickly; however, it may take three to six months to feel its full effect. It is important to be patient and keep taking your medication.

    To provide symptom relief while you are waiting for tocilizumab to take effect, your health-care provider may recommend taking a steroid, such as prednisone, or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

  • When should I not take tocilizumab and call my doctor?

    Tocilizumab can make it more difficult for your body to fight infections. People with active infections should not take tocilizumab. If you have a fever, think you have an infection or have been prescribed an antibiotic, contact your health-care provider. People who have had frequent infections in the past or a history of tuberculosis should discuss the use of tocilizumab with their prescriber. 

    Also contact your health-care provider if you are having surgery as you may need to stop tocilizumab until you are healed and there is no sign of infection.

    Tocilizumab has not been studied in pregnant women or nursing mothers so its effect(s) on pregnant women or nursing babies are unknown. You should tell your doctor if you are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant. Because of the potential for adverse reactions in nursing infants, a decision should be made on whether or not to discontinue nursing or the medication, taking into account the importance of the drug to the mother.

    Anyone who has had a previous allergic reaction to tocilizumab should avoid the medication.

    Anyone with a history of cancer or nervous system problems, such as multiple sclerosis, should discuss the use of tocilizumab with their health-care provider.

    Ideally, your vaccinations should be up to date prior to starting tocilizumab. If you have already started therapy with tocilizumab, your health-care provider will likely recommend most inactive vaccines (e.g., influenza, pneumococcal). Live vaccines are not recommended due to risk of causing infection. Before receiving any vaccinations while taking tocilizumab, you should speak with your health-care provider.

  • What are the side effects of tocilizumab?

    Like all medications, taking tocilizumab carries some risk of side effects, which must be balanced with the potential benefits. In general, the risk of joint damage and permanent disability (resulting from arthritis) is much greater than the risks of side effects from tocilizumab. When monitored properly the vast majority of side effects are rare, most improve over time and are reversible.

    Firstly, tocilizumab can increase your risk of infections.

    In rare cases, tocilizumab can cause an allergic reaction during the infusion (flushing, itching, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, etc.). A health-care provider will monitor for this reaction during the infusion. 
    For people taking the medication by injection, tocilizumab can rarely cause a reaction (redness, pain, and itching) at the injection site. Talk to your health-care provider if these symptoms become severe.

    Again in uncommon circumstances, people may experience upper respiratory tract infections (common cold, sinus infections) headaches and an increase in blood pressure with tocilizumab. Other rare side effects include cold sores, blisters and shingles. If any of these symptoms become severe please speak with your health-care provider. Some people have also developed skin infections (sometimes with fever and chills). If you believe you have an infection please contact your health-care provider.

    Very rarely tocilizumab has been associated with stomach perforations (holes in the lining of the stomach), usually as a complication of diverticulitis (infection of the large intestine). This requires immediate medical attention. If you develop fever and severe stomach pain that does not go away, seek medical attention.

    There have been rare cases of disorders that affect the nervous system of people taking tocilizumab. Signs that you could be experiencing a problem affecting your nervous system include numbness or tingling, problems with your vision, weakness in your legs and dizziness. If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention.
    Tocilizumab can rarely affect your blood counts, liver function and cholesterol levels. Your health-care provider will use blood tests to monitor for these changes.

  • What helps to reduce side effects?

    Take your tocilizumab as prescribed and contact your health-care provider if you have any concerns while taking the medication.

    If you experience an infusion reaction while taking tocilizumab, prior to your next infusion your health-care provider may recommend a medication pre-treatment to help prevent the reaction. Your health-care provider may also recommend a longer infusion time.

    To avoid injection reactions, injection sites should be rotated and avoid areas where the skin is tender, bruised, red and/or hard.

  • Do I need any monitoring while taking tocilizumab?

    Your will need to have your blood tested regularly while taking tocilizumab (your doctor will tell you how often). This is important to make sure tocilizumab isn’t affecting your liver, blood counts or cholesterol levels.


This information was last updated November 2017, with expert advice from:

Jason Kielly, B.Sc. (pharm.), Pharm.D.
Assistant Professor, School of Pharmacy, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Clinical Pharmacist, Rheumatic Health Program, Eastern Health

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