It was the first biologic created to treat Crohn’s disease (and later ulcerative colitis). Remicade (Infliximab) was approved by the FDA in 1998 for Crohn’s and 2005 for UC. The medication set the stage for a new way of treating and targeting IBD. A lot has changed in the last 23 years when it comes to treating IBD with biologics (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Biologic Fact Sheet). As patients we’re “lucky” that more options are available, and several medications are on the horizon. But Remicade remains a tried-and-true treatment option for IBD patients.
A few weeks back, I shared an article on my blog entitled, “The Patient Experience: What The IBD Community Says About Entyvio.” The article featured viewpoints, experiences, and tips/tricks from several people with IBD who are currently taking Entyvio or have in the past. That article and this one have NO affiliation or guidance from pharma. This is strictly created from the IBD patient experience.
The discussion on Entyvio was well-received and from there, I decided to do an exposé if you will, about other biologics, too. When I was told I needed to start a biologic while lying in a hospital bed in 2008, my mind was racing. I felt like I had nowhere to turn. There were only two options at the time. I didn’t know what resource to trust or where to go for information. My hope is that these articles help comfort you as you make these important, lifechanging health decisions, and alleviate a bit of the fear associated with being on a biologic drug long-term. Use these candid quotes to serve as your roadmap to navigate the unknown.
Before we dig deep into Remicade from the patient and caregiver perspective—a reminder that much like the way IBD presents and manifests in each of us, each person’s experience with biologics is unique to them. Remember that your experience could be better and could be worse.
What does anti-TNF mean?
Each biologic is associated as a class of drug. Remicade is an anti-TNF, meaning that the medication blocks a protein in your immune system called TNF-alpha. That protein can cause inflammation in your body. People with IBD produce too much TNF-alpha, which can cause our immune systems to mistakenly attack cells in the GI tract. Anti-TNF biologics work to regulate this protein in our bodies.
The Patient Voice
In this article you’ll hear from those who just started Remicade in the last week to someone who has been receiving infusions for 21 years! Thanks to each and every person who offered input, I wasn’t able to feature everyone’s perspective, but your narrative helped guide this piece.
Amanda Rowe started Remicade nine months ago. She was hesitant to start a biologic, but ever since taking the plunge, she hasn’t looked back.
“I haven’t had any issues. I get pre-meds of Benadryl and Solumedrol because I got slightly itchy during one infusion. It’s a nice quiet time to sleep or I bring my phone and earbuds and watch a show. It’s 2 hours where I get a break from hearing, “Mom, I need…” I currently have no active disease after being in a bad flare for two years. I flared that long because I was afraid of starting a biologic. My GI explained everything to me and calmed my fears about possible side effects and I finally agreed. I just wish I would have started Remicade sooner, so I could have felt the way I do now.”
Phylicia Petit has Crohn’s and has been receiving Remicade infusions since she was a teenager 11 years ago, she’s grateful the biologic has worked well for her.
“I’ve had a dosage increase and have added mesalamine for better inflammation control. Other than those changes, I’ve been relatively symptom-free, which is a major blessing! I would highly recommend having home health do your infusions. I haven’t had to take off work for my infusions and it’s so nice to be in the comfort of my home…especially with COVID! It’s also cheaper for insurance. I use Janssen Care Path for financial help. It helps to cover your infusion costs. I fortunately have never had any side effects.”
IBD is a family affair for Kara Cady. She has ulcerative colitis; her dad was diagnosed with Crohn’s as a teen and her little sister was recently diagnosed with UC. She just started Remicade last week.
“I’m still on the loading doses. The infusion process is long! It’s about 3 hours for me. I am able to get mine at my GI’s office. I can bring my laptop and work from there. I was super nervous for my initial dose, but my main “issues” are feeling tired, and having a headache and sore throat after. I’m looking forward to getting on my regular Remicade schedule, as I’ve been in flare for about 6 months.”
Laura Steiner is a nurse practitioner with ulcerative colitis who has depended on Remicade for over seven years.
“I have had to increase my dosage and shorten the interval but continue to stay in remission while on it. I’m usually wiped out the day of and the day after. I get my infusions on Fridays, so I have the weekend to recover. The only downside is many major insurance companies are forcing patients to switch to biosimilars, so after 62 doses of Remicade, my next infusion in June will be Inflectra. I’m hoping it will work equally as well.”
Laura is not alone in this fear and dealing with barriers to care and insurance coverage is a reality for many. While working on this article, a social worker from an insurance company reached out to me and said in the last week alone she’s dealt with several cases of people who have had their Remicade denied. She’s helping them through appeals. Until you’re a person who is dependent on a medication for improved quality of life, where timing is of the essence for receiving it, it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude and the pressure of not being able to receive your medication when you need it and risking a flare spiraling out of control or losing your remission.
Meg Bender-Stephanski was on Remicade to treat her Crohn’s for about a year and half. It worked well for her, but she says the infusions were not only inconvenient but costly, so she ended up switching biologics.
“I was going to college in Oregon while my main insurance was based in California, and the out of pocket costs the first few infusions in Oregon were around $18,000. It ended up being cheaper for me to fly home every 8 weeks for an infusion than it was to receive it in Oregon! I also really wanted to study abroad, and it was incredibly difficult to figure out the logistics. Remicade did work well for me and sometimes I have regrets for switching off it for personal reasons.”
Advice for Infusion Days
Kelly Dwyer was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2018, but experienced symptoms for several years prior. She has great advice for gearing up for infusion day and beyond.
- Take along a caregiver for your first infusion, if you can, just in case you have a reaction.
- Make sure you make a plan for pre-meds or no pre-meds with your GI before you go to the infusion center, so you don’t get surprised by their policies. Kelly takes Zyrtec the night before, so she doesn’t get drowsy and Tylenol right before the infusion to alleviate the headaches she gets towards the end of an infusion.
- The first few infusions should be slow infusions, to make sure you don’t have a reaction. Kelly has continued to receive hers at a slow rate (2-2.5 hours) because her blood pressure tends to bottom out when the Remicade is pushed to a higher rate. But for many, a higher rate works and helps the infusion go quicker.
- Switch arms and spots for your IV. Kelly says she saves her “big veins” for times when the nurses need to do a blood draw before the infusion and have to use a larger gauge needle.
- Hydrate well the morning of the infusion and bring along a heating pad, as it may help to wrap it around your arm if you’re dehydrated before the IV is started.
- Openly communicate with your infusion nurses. Let them know if you feel weird or off in any way. Nurses have seen it all and can be very reassuring and helpful, but you need to give them feedback so they can help you and act right away if you’re starting to feel poorly.
- Your reaction one day may be different the next. Kelly says she doesn’t have consistent reactions each time, so it’s important to be vigilant and always be prepared to expect the unexpected.
- For Kelly, she doesn’t start to feel the effects of Remicade for a few hours after the infusion. She gradually starts to feel more and more grumpy and tired. She gets a very particular kind of fatigue the day of her infusion. She says it’s a very numbing, all-encompassing, tiring feeling.
- Be aware of what dosage you’ve been prescribed. Understand there are several variables that your GI can change if the Remicade isn’t working immediately or enough. The interval time between infusions can be shortened, and/or the concentration of the medication can be increased.
- Remicade is often given with other immunomodulators, like Methotrexate. Talk with your GI about scheduling and timing for the infusions with your other medications.
- If you’re just getting started on a biologic, your GI will likely tell you to get vaccinated for Shingles and Pneumonia before starting. You’ll also need to do an annual TB test.
Kelly also advises patients to be aware of insurance companies in the United States. Like we touched on at the start of this article, she says many are requiring people to switch from the brand name Remicade to a biosimilar of Infliximab.
“I’m making the switch over at my next infusion in July and my GI and I agreed that we felt confident on the data out of Europe about the efficacy of biosimilars. I recommend everyone with IBD to do their own research and have this conversation with your GI. Be proactive and prepared to discuss options when the time comes with your insurance company.”
Balancing the Logistics of Infusions and Work/Life
Megan Alloway has counted on Remicade to keep her Crohn’s under control for 21 years. She prefers to get her infusions on Friday so she can use the weekends to recoup because it makes her so exhausted.
“While Remicade has been a blessing to me for over two decades, it feels like every time I turn around, it’s time for another infusion.”
An OBGYN with Crohn’s who wished to remain anonymous, has been on Remicade since she was 18. She’s now 35 and still receives her infusions every six weeks. She credits Remicade for giving her a full quality of life and enabling her to stay out of the hospital.
“Since starting Remicade, I have been able to finish college, med school, and residency with my symptoms under control. I’ve stayed out the hospital ever since I started Remicade. My main complaint is how long the infusions take. Different infusion centers have different protocols and requirements, but usually mine take over two hours. It’s annoying to find that kind of time on a weekday and be able to take care of my own patients, but I have to do it for my health.”
Heather Richter agrees the time an infusion takes can be inconvenient, but she’s learned to make the most of the “me” time as an IBD mom with Crohn’s disease.
“I’ve learned to embrace the “alone” time. Be persistent at your infusions and if something seems off to you, speak up and make sure you feel like you’re being listened to. My infusion nurse gives me Benadryl and Tylenol beforehand, so if I have the kids taken care of, I find it helpful to nap and rest afterwards.”
Kristi Reppel has been taking on Crohn’s for 18 years. She received Remicade from December 2005 until August 2011. She switched biologics for a lifestyle change and started Cimzia in September 2016. She ended up back on Remicade in December 2016. She currently received 7.5 mg/k every 4 weeks instead of the typical 6-8 weeks.
“This biologic works for me. It gets me in remission and keeps me there. I am a lot less symptomatic, thanks to my medicine. The bad part of all this is my veins are scarring over because I only have a few good ones and those are almost gone. The post infusion exhaustion and headache can also be a lot. As an attorney, finding the time to sit through an infusion and schedule it around court room hearings can be rough. I cannot recommend enough about the importance of hydrating with water that has electrolytes like Smart Water around infusion day. It’s made a big difference for me!”
Linde Joy Parcels says Remicade allowed her to reach remission in high school. She had swollen and painful joints, and after starting the biologic, she experienced a complete transformation.
“Unfortunately, I metabolized Remicade too quickly and had to transition to Humira after one year. I loved getting to take a day off school while on Remicade and spent my infusions relaxing with my mom watching soap operas. That was the silver lining for me!”
The Caregiver Perspective—from a wife to moms of pediatric patients
Remicade has been a lifesaver for Rebecca Kaplan’s husband. Before starting a biologic, she says his Crohn’s was not well-controlled. He was on one medication, going to the bathroom 25-30 times a day. By the time her husband started Remicade, the damage had already been done and was irreversible, so they didn’t see the true impact of the biologic until after he had bowel resection surgery.
He’s been on Remicade for 11 years this summer and in that time, he’s been able to graduate with a master’s degree, work full time, work out, play softball, and attend family functions. He’s also put on close to 45 pounds and gone from malnourished and underweight to thriving.
“Remicade isn’t picture perfect – the few days after his infusion I like to say he becomes a toddler who can’t control their emotions. He’s extremely irritable and says it feels like his brain is on fire. He gets sinus infections more often than before (and apparently that’s not uncommon when you are on a biologic), and he still has some symptoms from time to time. But his last colonoscopy showed that he is in deep remission, and I know that he wouldn’t have achieved that without being on Remicade.”
Alexia Anastasia’s 11-year-old daughter started Remicade in February. The list of side effects and hearing a horror story from a friend who “had a friend who had a stroke” made her a nervous wreck. Ultimately, she looked at the research and the long history of pediatric use of Remicade and felt she was making the right decision alongside her daughter’s GI.
“It’s been a game changer. We learned quickly my daughter needs it every 4 weeks after trying to go for 6 weeks. I’m so grateful it seems to be working. Her fecal calprotectin is almost normal from originally being 3,460. Her inflammatory markers are back to normal. I just hope it keeps working and the side effects remain minimal. It’s been a challenging 5 months with this new diagnosis. Now that I can reflect, I’m grateful my daughter’s GI pushed for us to start a biologic immediately. My daughter was withering away before my eyes and now she is back on track.”
Beth Otto-Stapleton’s daughter Penny started on Remicade when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2017 at age four. She was given two infusions a few days apart while hospitalized during her first flare. Unfortunately, that is when Penny suffered heart damage and was diagnosed with heart failure because of the Remicade.
“She now does Vedolizumab infusions instead because it is a different class of biologic. We are thankful as a pediatric patient, Penny can go to a Children’s Hospital for treatments…it keeps the hard parts of the disease there and keeps our home a safe/comfy space. The great part about the infusions is that we also get blood work done and get instant feedback. I always ask the infusion nurse to give her an extra bag of fluids so she’s well hydrated.”
Dermatological Side Effects
While talking with patients about their Remicade experience, skin issues came up in a few conversations.
Remicade was the first biologic Dana Drengler tried. She says it worked the best and the longest for her. She was in full remission and lived a normal life while on it. Unfortunately, after about 3 years in, she started to develop red spots on her lower legs. They looked like broken blood vessels at first, but then started to spread and get larger, eventually turning into deep and painful ulcers.
“The ulcers covered my lower legs and became super painful, to the point where I couldn’t walk some days. It stumped my doctors, and they only thing they could think of was that it was a reaction to Remicade. They had me stop taking it and within a few months, my legs started to heal. I still have scars 5 years later!”
Mia Frakes has been using Remicade to control her Crohn’s inflammation since 2017, overall, she feels the medication does the trick, but she has what she calls the “oddest side effect”.
“I’ve been dealing with extremely red, dry, and flaky skin in strange areas like behind my ears and my belly button. My GI says she has seen this dry skin in other patients, too. I have to go to the dermatologist, and they give me topical medication to put on the dry areas, which seems to help.”
Madelynn Jessberger was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2008, she’s been on Remicade the last three years. She was receiving infusions prior to getting her colon removed and was put back on the biologic after. Aside from some aches and tiredness after infusions, she also developed a rash.
“I developed psoriasis all over my body and my GI is unsure if it’s a side effect, a separate autoimmune disease, or an extra intestinal manifestation of Crohn’s. I manage the rash with thick creams and topical medicine from my dermatologist. Everyone is different, this is just my experience.”
Pregnancy + Motherhood and Remicade
Alyssa Leggett started Remicade in August 2018. At first, she was getting infusions every 8 weeks. Then, in 2019, two weeks before an infusion she started feeling fatigued and was dealing with urgency, pain, and diarrhea. Because of those symptoms, her infusions were moved to every 6 weeks.
“After I gave birth, my doctor wanted to switch me to the rapid rate infusion. I’ve been doing those since November 2020. They’re about an hour shorter and I don’t have any side effects from them. I feel like I can have a more stable life. I still get symptoms from time to time, but I attribute that to the food I eat. Thanks to Remicade, I reached remission and had a healthy, full-term pregnancy.”
Allie Heiman is grateful for how Remicade has helped prepare her body for motherhood.
“I haven’t had any side effects from Remicade and have found the infusion to be easiest in my hand with only minor bruising the next day or two. I started in March 2020 and was cleared to start trying for pregnancy in December 2020. After 13 years of negative scope results and being told I was not healthy enough for pregnancy, I could not be more thrilled with the outcome. I am hopeful to be a mom in the future, and grateful that Remicade made that a possibility with Crohn’s.”
Tayler Jansen is an IBD mom of two. “Remicade has been amazing! Remicade and Imuran have kept me in remission for the past 9 years and enabled me to have two healthy pregnancies.”
Shakila Almirantearena has identical 5-year-old twin girls. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s shortly after they were born and is currently in remission. Along with Remicade, she takes Methotrexate.
“I take Tylenol and Claritin at the infusion center to prevent any rash, etc. I usually take the whole day off work and really allow my body to rest. I haven’t had any major side effects. I’m usually tired the next few days and sometimes get a headache the day after my infusion, but Tylenol helps alleviate any pain.”
Christine Renee has had Crohn’s for 20 years, she’s a mom of two teens and a teacher.
“Remicade was a game changer for me compared to the previous meds I was on. I eventually developed antibodies to it, and it wasn’t as effective. My tips for those getting started are to not be afraid. I was so nervous about starting a biologic, but after the way I was feeling and the tests that my doctor performed, I knew it was the right thing to do. I started Stelara a few days ago and I’m hoping for similar results.”
Other Helpful Remicade “Hacks”
- Bring a phone charger to your infusions.
- Dress comfortably.
- Hydrate well the day before, day of, and day after.
- Remember your headphones or AirPods so you can drown out the noise and watch a movie or show. Noise canceling headphones for the win!
- Pack games and books to pass the time or your laptop so you can work.
- Have someone else drive you when possible, in case you are drowsy from the Benadryl.
- Pack snacks and drinks. Many infusion centers will also have this available for you.
- Have a sweater or blanket!
- Lauren Hopkins has been on Remicade well over a decade and receives what’s considered a “double dose” every 5 weeks. She’s found her sweet spot and has been able to maintain remission. She says, “Refrigerated Remicade mixed with room temperature saline feels COLD pumping into your veins. It shouldn’t hurt, so if it does, say something to your nurse so they can fix your IV.”
- Have the Infusion Nurse run saline before and after your infusion to help with headaches.
- Be your own best advocate. Speak up to your care team if something feels off, if your symptoms are persisting, or if you’re dealing with side effects that make your life challenging.
- Remember if a biologic fails—it’s not on you, you didn’t fail anything, the drug failed you.
Video: What to Expect at a Remicade infusion(Credit: Crohn’s and Colitis Young Adults Network)