If you’ve just been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your primary concern is going to be your joints. But RA is a systemic disease, meaning the inflammation that’s affecting your joints can also target other parts of the body. So, for that matter, can the drugs used to treat RA.

While some of the side effects listed here might be alarming, they’re far more likely to happen to people who’ve had moderate-to-severe RA for a long time and whose disease hasn’t been well-controlled with medication than those who are newly diagnosed or whose disease has been mild or under control. That being said, it’s important to become educated about the effects of this disease – and the drugs used to treat it – as early as possible so you can manage it better later on.

No matter what stage of RA you’re in, if you experience any of the signs or symptoms mentioned here, it’s imperative that you tell your doctor as soon as possible. She’ll determine the cause – or causes – and adjust your treatment plan accordingly.


About half of the people with RA develop rheumatoid nodules – lumps of tissue that form under the skin, often over bony areas exposed to pressure, such as fingers or elbows. Unless the nodule is located in a sensitive spot, such as where you hold a pen, treatment may not be necessary. Nodules sometimes disappear on their own; disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), a category of drugs that inhibits the disease process, can cause them to vanish as well.

Skin is also susceptible to RA drugs. Corticosteroids, which mimic the naturally occurring hormone cortisol to control inflammation, can cause thinning of the skin and susceptibility to bruising. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which treat inflammation, and Methotrexate, a widely prescribed DMARD, can cause sun sensitivity. People taking biologic response modifiers, or biologics, a sub-category of DMARDs designed to stop inflammation at the cellular level, may develop a rash at the injection site.


Some people with rheumatoid arthritis may develop an inflammation of the eyes known as scleritis. Symptoms include pain, redness, blurred vision and light sensitivity. Treatment is usually eye drops, NSAIDs or a corticosteroid. A rare complication of scleritis is scleromalacia perforans, in which the eye may be permanently damaged by severe inflammation. RA can also cause uveitis, an inflammation of the area between the retina and the white of the eye, which, if not treated, could cause blindness. As a rule, people with RA should get eye checkups at least once a year. Corticosteroids may cause glaucoma and cataracts; hydroxychloroquine, in rare cases, causes pigment changes in the retina.


No one knows why, but people with RA tend to have a higher rate of gum disease, or gingivitis. Excellent oral hygiene is a must. Medications such as methotrexate can cause mouth sores or oral ulcers. For treatment, try a topical pain reliever or ask your doctor or dentist for a prescription mouthwash.