Flu activity is already heating up across the country, according to statistics from FluView, a weekly report published by the Centers for Disease Control. If you have rheumatoid arthritis and take immunosuppressant drugs such as corticosteroids or methotrexate (Trexall®), you're more susceptible to catching the flu. However, a recent study shows that one medication, abatacept (Orencia®), could actually protect you against influenza.

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that mice infected with the influenza A virus responded well when treated with abatacept, a biologic medication commonly used by people with moderate or severe arthritis. Symptoms were less severe in the mice; they had less lung damage, and also recovered quicker compared to mice that weren't treated with abatacept.

How Does Abatacept Fight Flu?

The researchers believe that the drug tempers the response of the body's immune system, in particular preventing "memory" T-cells (which fight viruses based on previous exposure) from overreacting. "It's this overactive immune response that can make you feel sick--and can also lead to pneumonia," says senior author Donna L. Farber, Ph.D., a  professor of surgery and microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSM).

Health professionals currently grappling with the high rate of death in young people who contracted the H1N1 virus believe that an overactive immune response causes tissue and organ damage. If the UMSM research on the effects of abatacept holds true, people with rheumatoid arthritis could reduce their risk of seasonal and pandemic flu by taking the drug.

According to Dr. Farber, because immunotherapy with a drug such as abatacept targets the immune system and not the virus itself, it would be effective against different viral strains and could be administered to people even if they're very sick.

How Is Abatacept Given?

Abatacept is administered by injection. It's sometimes used in combination with other arthritis drugs such as methotrexate. The Arthritis Foundation recommends not taking it with other biologic drugs or TNF blockers.

What Are the Side Effects of Abatacept?

You should report any unusual reactions you have when using this drug to your doctor. The Food and Drug Administration list the following as the main side effects:

• Severe infections - pneumonia, or other viral, bacterial, or fungal infections.

• Allergic reactions - hives, trouble breathing, or swelling in the face, eyelids, or mouth

• Common side effects - such as headache, nausea, sore throat, and upper respiratory infections

Abatacept has also been linked to some forms of cancer, but more research is needed in this area.

Other Ways to Fight Flu When You Have Rheumatoid Arthritis

Abatacept isn't the only option to protect yourself from influenza. If you take rheumatoid arthritis drugs that suppress your immune system, these tips can help you avoid the flu this season:

• Get the flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control recommends it as the best way to ward off flu in people older than six months old, even those with chronic health conditions. However, people with autoimmune diseases should not get the flu nasal spray.

• Take oseltamivir (Tamiflu®). You should take this antiviral drug within the first 48 hours of experiencing flu symptoms to prevent more serious illness. It's also recommended to treat H1N1.

• Practice good hygiene. Frequent hand washing, or using hand sanitizers, significantly reduces your risk of catching the flu; so can keeping your fingers out of your mouth and nose.

• Practice avoidance. Try to stay away from sick people, at home, work or in public places.

• Eat healthy meals. A well-balanced diet helps to keep your immune system strong. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, fish, lean protein, nuts and seeds.

• Sleep more. Insufficient shuteye weakens your immune system. Try to get at least six hours sleep every night.

Source: University of Maryland Medical Center press release.