BACKGROUND: Low dose methotrexate has become established in the treatment of refractory rheumatoid arthritis. Until recently it has been considered that the use of a low dose regimen (< 20 mg/week) would avoid the pulmonary toxicity associated with the higher doses prescribed in malignant disease. Although initial experience with low dose methotrexate was encouraging, an increasing number of cases of an acute, life threatening pneumonitis are being reported in patients with refractory rheumatoid arthritis. PATIENTS: Since 1984 43 patients with refractory rheumatoid arthritis have been established on low dose methotrexate in the Oxford Health District. Five of these patients have subsequently developed acute methotrexate induced pneumonitis. The clinical and radiological features of these cases are described and previous reports reviewed. RESULTS: Five patients having low dose methotrexate treatment developed acute pneumonitis. Presentation was subacute and dominated by constitutional features. Respiratory symptoms developed insidiously but progressed rapidly with increasing dyspnoea associated with severe hypoxia. Chest radiographs were non-specific, showing diffuse interstitial infiltration and alveolar shadowing. Microbiological investigation gave negative results. In all cases methotrexate was discontinued and high dose corticosteroids started, with rapid clinical and radiological improvement. After withdrawal of steroid both clinical and radiological resolution was maintained at follow up. CONCLUSION: Acute pneumonitis is an uncommon but serious adverse effect of low dose methotrexate treatment for refractory rheumatoid arthritis. The initial presentation is non-specific and a high index of suspicion is required as respiratory failure may develop rapidly. Management depends on exclusion of infection, withdrawal of methotrexate, and high dose corticosteroid treatment. Full supportive treatment is indicated as the prognosis in such patients is good.
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