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How to Protect Your New Organ Transplant From Rejection

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Posted by Serban Constantinescu, MD, PhD

Abdominal organ transplants can be lifesaving. But receiving a new liver, pancreas, or kidney can also come with serious risks, including the possibility that the body may reject the organ. Fortunately, there are steps you and your care team can take to minimize this danger. This is the advice I and other members of the team at the Temple Transplant Program give to people who have undergone an organ transplant.

Why does organ rejection happen?

When a patient receives a new organ, the immune system sees the organ as a foreign “invader” rather than as part of the body. In response, the immune system protects the body by attempting to attack and destroy the new organ.

When this kind of attack happens, it’s said that the new organ is being rejected. Rejection can cause the new organ to fail, putting the patient in the same situation they were in before their transplant. In some cases, rejection can even lead to death.

How can organ transplantation rejection be prevented?

At Temple, members of the transplant team and I take steps before and after surgery to protect the health of the patient’s transplant organ and prevent rejection. There are things that transplant recipients can do too, and we work to educate patients on these measures.

Before a transplant surgery, members of our transplant team will conduct numerous tests to ensure a patient and donor organ are a good match. This helps lower the risk of rejection right from the start. We confirm that the blood types of the patient and the donor are compatible, and we also conduct genetic testing on the patient and the organ.

After a transplant, we advise patients on the ways that they can protect their new liver, pancreas, or kidney from being rejected. Here are some of the steps that members of the transplant team and I recommend:

1. Go to all of your lab appointments 

Frequent blood tests are needed to assess how your body is responding to the new organ. It’s crucial that you attend all of these lab appointments, as blood work can sometimes indicate that rejection is happening before you experience symptoms. This gives your doctor a chance to act sooner rather than later by adjusting your anti-rejection medications or conducting follow-up tests. After the first year, blood work is needed less frequently, but even once the labs are spaced further apart, it’s still important that you go to all of them.

2. Take your medications as prescribed

Patients are given immunosuppressant drugs that reduce the risk of rejection after an organ transplant. These drugs work by tricking the immune system into thinking that the transplanted organ is an existing part of the body instead of something new, preventing it from attacking the organ. Immunosuppressant medications need to be taken indefinitely, and missing even one dose can be detrimental to your health. It’s essential to stay on top of your drug regimen and notify your transplant team right away if you fall behind in taking your medications.

3. Talk with your doctor before taking any other medications

Never take a new medication or supplement without getting permission from your doctor first. Other drugs, even over-the-counter vitamins and supplements, can potentially interfere with an immunosuppressant. And if an immunosuppressant drug isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, your new organ is more likely to become rejected.

4. Be aware of your body

Notify your doctor right away if you experience symptoms that might indicate that your transplanted organ is being rejected. These symptoms can include:

  • Fever of 100 degrees or more
  • Chills
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Sudden blood pressure changes
  • Pain or swelling near the transplant area
  • Problems with urination, including decreased urination, dark urine, or burning while urinating
  • High or low blood sugar
  • Trouble breathing

5. Embrace a healthy lifestyle

Choose nutritious foods, such as lean beef, chicken, and pork; whole-grain breads and cereals; and fruits and vegetables. Organ-rejection medications can affect bone health, so you need to consume plenty of calcium-rich foods and beverages — such as low-fat milk and yogurt — or take a calcium supplement.

After you’ve recovered from transplant surgery, talk to your doctor about starting an exercise routine. Follow other instructions you may have been given related to your particular transplant, like avoiding alcohol if you received a new liver. You may also need to avoid consuming grapefruit or grapefruit juice because it interacts with certain immunosuppressant drugs.

Rejection remains a lifelong risk after an abdominal organ transplant, but it can be managed, and as long as you are taking the proper precautions, you shouldn’t be in constant fear of organ rejection. I remind my patients that the majority of organ transplants are successful — and with the right care, most recipients live for many years with their new liver, kidney, or pancreas.

To meet with a member of the transplant team, schedule an appointment online or call 800-TEMPLE-MED (800-836-7536).

Helpful Resources

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Serban Constantinescu, MD, PhD

Dr. Constantinescu is a nephrologist who performs both kidney and pancreas transplants. A Professor of Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Dr. Constantinescu has research interests in the Hepatitis C virus infection in renal transplantation, and kidney dysfunction in non-renal solid organ transplantation.

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