Life-table analysis was applied to the records of 317 patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) treated with sulphasalazine (SAS), 201 treated with sodium aurothiomalate (gold), and 163 with penicillamine. They comprised all those treated in our department with these drugs between January 1973 and July 1984. Risks of treatment termination for all reasons were similar for each drug at five years (gold 92%, penicillamine 83%, SAS 81%). The risk of treatment termination due to inefficacy was less for gold (29.5%) than for penicillamine (38.1%) or sulphasalazine (41.2%). Adverse effects, however, led to withdrawal of gold in 57%, penicillamine in 41.2%, and SAS in 37%; the most effective drugs appeared most toxic. Serious adverse effects were much more common in association with gold (17.4%) and penicillamine (12.3%) than with SAS (1.6%). Sulphasalazine appears as well tolerated over long periods in RA as gold or penicillamine and is associated with fewer serious adverse effects; of these drugs, it might therefore be considered the agent of first choice.
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