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Health After Transplantation

KEEPING A HEALTHY OUTLOOK ON LIFE

After an organ transplant, there is hope for the future. However, there are a number of health concerns that you will face. For example, there is the chance that your new organ will not always function as well as it should. Transplant recipients also have a higher risk of developing certain conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood lipid levels, diabetes, kidney problems, liver problems, and bone disease. Infection and cancer are also conditions you need to keep in mind.

Some conditions can affect any transplant recipient and some conditions are specific to the type of organ transplanted.


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CARING FOR YOUR NEW ORGAN

Lab Tests for Measuring Organ Function

It is important to keep all of your scheduled checkups and lab appointments for monitoring organ function. Testing allows your transplant team to monitor the status of your transplant, detect rejection early, and start effective therapy right away.

Common tests for checking organ function are listed below:

  • Liver function tests — Blood tests are used to monitor liver function (e.g. albumin); damage to liver cells (e.g., alanine transaminase [ALT], Aspartate transaminase [AST]) and some with conditions linked to the path by which bile is produced by the liver (e.g., gamma-glutamyl transferase and alkaline phosphatase)
  • Pulmonary function tests — Tests like spirometry show how well you lungs are working
  • Bronchoscopy — A test that uses an instrument (bronchoscope) to view the airways and diagnose lung disease
  • Chest x-ray
  • Upper and lower gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopies — These evaluations can detect abnormalities of your esophagus, stomach, and intestine
  • Hemodynamic monitoring — Sonar-type echos may be used to detect high blood pressure in your heart and lungs or a catheter may be placed in the heart for periods of six to 12 hours
  • Echocardiogram — Sonar-type echos can show abnormalities in the heart and lungs
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) — Asseses the electrical activity within your heart
  • Renal function studies — Your doctor may ask you to collect your urine (usually for 24 hours) to evaluate if your kidneys are working properly. Blood tests such as serum creatinine are performed to measure kidney function
  • Biopsy — A biopsy may also be taken to determine if a rejection episode has occurred. This is done by collecting a small piece of tissue from the organ and examining it under a microscope

OTHER HEALTH ISSUES

Anti-rejection medications increase your risk of developing certain conditions such as infection and cancer. Other side effects of some anti-rejection medications include high blood pressure, diabetes, high blood lipids, kidney disease, heart attack, stroke, and bone disease. Knowing the risks and taking steps now to prevent them is a good way to keep you and your new organ healthy.

HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a common complication in patients who receive a transplant. High blood pressure can damage the arteries and the heart, increasing the risk of a stroke, a heart attack, kidney problems, or heart failure.

For many patients, the cause of hypertension is not known. However, people with kidney disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure before the transplant are at higher risk of high blood pressure after the transplant. Other factors that contribute to high blood pressure after a transplant include a diet high in salt, clogged arteries, high blood lipid levels, smoking, obesity, and some anti-rejection medications such as cyclosporine, tacrolimus, and steroids (prednisone).

Recommended Blood Pressure Levels

People with a blood pressure of 140/90 mm Hg or higher are considered hypertensive. While most transplant recipients should have a blood pressure of 130/80 mm Hg, the ideal blood pressure can vary from person to person. The American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines for the target blood pressure in the general population can also be used as guidelines for organ transplant recipients. Normal blood pressure values for children are based on age, sex and height and in general are much lower than in adults.
Classification Systolic Pressure (mm Hg) Diastolic Pressure (mm Hg)
Normal Less than 120 Less than 80
Prehypertension 120-139 80-89
Stage 1 hypertension 140-159 90-99
Stage 2 hypertension 160 or higher 100 or higher

High blood pressure usually does not cause any symptoms so it is important to have your blood pressure checked by your transplant team at regular follow-up exams. Your transplant team may also want you to monitor your blood pressure closely while at home.

Reducing High Blood Pressure

Making some lifestyle changes can lower your blood pressure and prevent hypertension

Figure. Lifestyle changes for healthier living.

Figure. Lifestyle changes for healthier living.

Sometimes hypertension can be controlled with lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, but most patients also require medication.

There are a variety of medications for treating and controlling high blood pressure

Figure. Blood pressure medications

Figure. Blood pressure medications

The most commonly prescribed medications include ACE inhibitors, ARBs, calcium channel blockers, beta-blockers, and diuretics. Some of these medications may have interactions with certain anti-rejection medications.

HIGH BLOOD LIPIDS

While lipids (cholesterol and related compounds) in your blood are necessary for good health, too high levels of some lipids can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death among transplant recipients. Most transplant recipients develop high blood lipids. Kidney, heart, and liver transplant patients usually display similar elevations in total cholesterol (TC) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ("bad cholesterol").

Eating the wrong foods, lack of exercise, and being overweight can increase your risk of developing high levels of LDL cholesterol ("bad cholesterol"), high levels of triglycerides, and low levels of HDL cholesterol ("good cholesterol"). Transplant recipients who are obese, smoke cigarettes, or have high blood pressure are more likely to have high cholesterol. Steroids and some of the other anti-rejection medications, such as cyclosporine, sirolimus, and tacrolimus, can also cause high blood lipid levels.

Recommended Blood Lipid Levels

Be sure to ask your doctor what your cholesterol levels should be. In some instances, transplant recipients can follow target levels of blood lipids recommended in the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) guidelines.
Lipid Low Optimal High
LDL Cholesterol   < 100 mg/dL 160-189 mg/dL
HDL Cholesterol < 40 mg/dL   60 mg/dL
Total Cholesterol     240 mg/dL

Reducing High Blood Lipid Levels

Making healthy lifestyle changes can lower your chances of developing heart disease. You can help lower your blood lipid levels with a proper diet and regular exercise. A diet low in cholesterol and saturated fats may also help reduce your risk of coronary artery disease. In addition to making healthy changes to your diet, exercising for a minimum of 20 to 30 minutes 3 to 4 times a week can also reduce your lipid levels and lower your risk of heart attack or stroke. If you smoke, it is important that you STOP!

If adjustment of your anti-rejection drugs, diet, and exercise are not successful in reducing lipid levels, your doctor may want you to take cholesterol-lowering medications. There are several medications that work to lower blood lipids. The most commonly prescribed medications are called statins, which include atorvastatin (Lipitor®), simvastatin (Zocor®), pravastatin (Pravachol®), fluvastatin (Lescol®), rosuvastatin (Crestor®), and lovastatin (Mevacor®).

If your doctor prescribes a statin, you will need to be monitored for side effects because the risk of side effects is greater when taken with anti-rejection medications. You will also need blood tests to monitor liver and muscle function. Other types of medication that your transplant team might prescribe to treat high blood lipids include bile acid sequestrants, nicotinic acid, fibric acids, and cholesterol absorption inhibitors.

DIABETES

High blood glucose can cause many health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, kidney injury, nerve damage, and eye problems.

Post-transplant diabetes (PTDM) is more common in transplant recipients who have a family history of diabetes as well as those who are overweight, are taking steroids, or have hepatitis C. Diabetes after a transplant is also more common among African Americans and some other ethnic groups such as Native Americans. Other risk factors for PTDM include older age of the recipient.

Controlling Blood Sugar Levels

Most transplant recipients with diabetes can follow the American Diabetes Association (ADA) guidelines. Patients with PTDM should establish a healthy (weight-reducing, if necessary) diet with a structured exercise program. A healthy diet is needed to prevent diabetes or to help control your glucose if diabetes does occur. For all transplant recipients, it is best to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly to avoid weight gain and reduce the risk of developing high blood glucose or diabetes.

Your transplant coordinator or dietician can help determine your recommended daily calorie intake. Limiting the amount of fats and sugar in your diet can also help to maintain a healthy level of blood glucose.

Treatment Options for Controlling Diabetes

There are several types of medications available for patients with diabetes. Depending on the level of glucose in your blood, treatment with oral hypoglycemic drugs and/or insulin may be indicated. For many transplant recipients, insulin injections or an insulin pump is an option for controlling blood sugar. Or, you may be given an oral medication to control blood glucose levels. Your transplant team will determine which medication is right for you.

KIDNEY DISEASE

Kidney function is often decreased in transplant recipients. This may be caused by a pre-existing condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or injury to the kidney before a transplant. Or it may be caused by medications used to prevent rejection after a transplant.

The best way to help prevent kidney disease is to keep your blood pressure and blood glucose under control and to maintain a healthy weight. In addition, regular checkups with blood and urine tests will give your doctor important information for detecting early changes in kidney function and allowing appropriate steps to be taken.

BLOOD VESSELS DISEASE

Transplant recipients have a higher risk of developing blood vessel disease. Some anti-rejection medications increase the risk of high lipid levels, which can clog arteries and restrict the flow of blood to the heart and brain. Deposits — called atherosclerotic plaque — can completely or partially block blood vessels resulting in a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or acute coronary syndromes.

Likewise, a stroke can occur if an artery that supplies blood to the brain becomes blocked. Partial blockage may temporarily reduce the blood supply to the brain. A complete loss of blood supply to the brain results in a stroke.

BONE DISEASE

Bone disease is a problem for many organ transplant recipients. Organ failure before your transplant may cause bones to become thin and brittle (osteoporosis). Other causes of osteoporosis include use of some anti-rejection drugs (corticosteroids), overactive parathyroid gland, cigarette smoking, and not enough calcium in your diet.

Preventing Bone Disease

There are some basic things you can do to help prevent or treat bone disease.
  • Exercise regularly, including weight lifting or strength training — be sure to discuss weight limits with your transplant team before beginning an exercise program
  • Eat foods that are high in calcium, including low-fat yogurt, cheese, and milk
  • Choose foods and juices with calcium added
  • Get plenty of dietary protein (unless restricted by your doctor)
  • Take calcium supplements if directed by your doctor
  • Take vitamin D only as directed by your doctor
  • Stop smoking

Your doctor or transplant dietician will tell you if you need to take calcium or vitamin D supplements. Your doctor may also want you to take medications that prevent bone thinning, including bisphosphonates such as alendronate (Fosamax®), etidronate (Didrocal®), and risedronate (Actonel®) or calcitonin.

STAYING FIT

Diet - Things are shaping up

The recommended diet for transplant patients consists of 30% fats, 50% carbohydrates and 20% protein.

Figure. Recommended composition of diet for transplant recipients

Figure. Recommended composition of diet for transplant recipients

Your transplant dietician will give you specific instructions about your recommended daily allowance of specific nutrients. Some tips for following a healthy diet include:

  • Eat high-fiber foods such as raw fruits and vegetables
  • Increase your calcium intake by eating low-fat dairy products and green leafy vegetables or by taking calcium supplements (if directed by your doctor)
  • Eat less salt, processed foods, and snacks
  • Use herbs and spices to add flavor instead of salt
  • Drink plenty of water (unless you are told to limit fluids)
  • Eat as little fat and oil as possible
  • Eat high-protein foods such as lean meat, chicken (without the skin), fish, eggs, nuts (unsalted), and beans
  • Select healthier condiments such as mustard, low-fat mayonnaise, and low-fat salad dressing
  • Instead of frying, try baking, broiling, grilling, boiling, or steaming foods
  • Instead of using oil to cook, use nonstick, fat-free spray

Exercise

Exercise is a great way to help increase your energy and strength after a transplant. A regular exercise routine will also help you maintain your ideal weight, prevent high blood pressure and high lipid levels, and keep your bones strong. It also helps relieve stress and overcome feelings of depression.

Soon after your transplant, you’ll want to start slow with a low-impact activity such as walking. With time, you can increase your workout with more demanding activities such as bicycling, jogging, swimming, or whatever exercise you enjoy. Training with dumbbells, cuff weights, or weights will increase strength and help prevent bone loss, but check with your transplant team first to determine how much weight is safe for you to lift. Stretching exercises are also important for muscle tone and flexibility. Be sure to check with your doctor before beginning or changing your exercise routine.

STOP Smoking

Smoking also contributes to already high risk of cardiovascular, particularly in patients with diabetes and may be detrimental to kidney function. Transplant recipients who smoke should to STOP smoking as soon as possible.

Dental Care

Routine dental care is important both before and following transplantation as oral infections can cause significant medical problems and even death. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), pre-treatment with antibiotics is not needed for routine dental care unless the patient has an underlying heart condition that increases the risk of developing a heart infection. These include patients with heart transplants with graft valvulopathy (or a previous history of endocarditis, prosthetic valves, and certain forms of congenital heart diseases.)

Gingival overgrowth (hypertrophy) is a dental issue that can arise in transplant patients especially those using cyclosporine. This occurrence of gingival overgrowth can be reduced by practicing good oral hygiene.

ROUTINE FOLLOW-UP EXAMS

All people should have regular exams to help prevent illness.

As we get older, there are some specific tests that should be done on a regular basis

Figure. Recommended tests by patient age

Figure. Recommended tests by patient age

Self-Monitoring

In addition to the tests that your transplant team will perform at regular follow-up visits, you will need to do some self-testing at home. Here are some things you will need to monitor:
  • Weight – Weigh yourself at the same time each day, preferably in the morning. If you gain 2 pounds in a day or more than 5 pounds total, call your transplant team.
  • Temperature – You should take your temperature daily, especially when you feel like you have a fever. Call your transplant team if your temperature is too high.
  • Blood pressure – Check your blood pressure as often as your transplant team recommends.
  • Pulse – You should check your pulse daily. A normal heart rate when not exercising should be 60 to 100 beats per minute. (If you have had a heart transplant, your resting heart rate may be as high as 110 to 120 beats per minute.)
  • Blood sugar – If you have high blood sugar or diabetes, you will need to monitor your blood sugar using a glucometer.

Do not take any pain medication (for example, Tylenol®, Motrin®, or Advil®), cold remedy, antacid, herbal medication, or any over-the-counter medication unless your transplant team tells you to.

PREGNANCY: BENEFITS AND RISKS

For female transplant recipients of child-bearing age, fertility is usually restored immediately after a transplant.

There have been thousands of births among women with transplanted organs.

Figure. Number of pregnancies in the US reported in organ transplant recipients

Figure. Number of pregnancies in the US reported in organ transplant recipients

Although pregnancy is now an expected part of the benefits afforded to women by organ transplantation, there are also a number of considerations.

Getting pregnant is generally not recommended within the first year after a transplant because the doses of anti-rejection medications are highest; there is a greater risk of rejection; and many other medications are prescribed that are toxic to the developing fetus. Female transplant recipients of child-bearing age should continue using birth control until the doctor says that it is okay to get pregnant.

Male transplant recipients may also be concerned about their ability to have children. Men may have fertility problems related to some transplant medications, but many men have been able to father healthy children after a transplant.

If you are interested in, or thinking about, becoming pregnant you must talk to your transplant team first. Pregnancy should be planned when organ function and anti-rejection therapy are stable and there are no signs of rejection, high blood pressure, or infection.

High Risk Pregnancy

According to National Transplantation Pregnancy Registry (NTPR) over 70% of births to female transplant recipients are live births and most have favorable outcomes for child and mother. Although this success is encouraging, these pregnancies are still considered high risk. There are risks of complications during pregnancy for the transplant recipient as well as risk of infection and exposure to anti-rejection drugs for the fetus.

For example, there is a greater risk of high blood pressure during pregnancy in the woman who has received a transplant. The risk of infection is higher for all transplant recipients, and urinary tract infections are the most common infections during pregnancy. Other infections that may cause concern during pregnancy include herpes, hepatitis, toxoplasmosis, and cytomegalovirus. Other risks include preeclampsia and preterm delivery. The fetus is also at risk for infections such as cytomegalovirus and herpes simplex virus related to the suppression of the mother’s immune system by anti-rejection drugs.

A common question is whether the baby born to a woman with a transplanted organ will be normal. We know that some babies are born premature to mothers with transplants and that they have low birth weights. It is not known whether there are long-term effects on the baby’s development.

You should inform your baby’s pediatrician that your baby was exposed to anti-rejection drugs in the womb. There is a higher risk of birth defects with some anti-rejection drugs especially mycophenolate mofetil and azathioprine. The levels of anti-rejection drugs in the mother’s blood must be monitored closely. Monitoring of blood levels is particularly important in the third trimester, when fetal metabolism may increase the clearance of anti-rejection drugs from the blood. Ask your transplant team whether or not you should breast-feed. It is not known whether breast-feeding while on certain anti-rejection medications can harm the baby.

A major concern for transplant recipients is whether pregnancy will lead to organ rejection or decreased function of the transplanted organ. In general, pregnancy does not affect organ function or patient survival as long your organ is working very well. But, it is very important to discuss with your transplant team whether or not a pregnancy will be too risky. Because pregnancy is considered high risk for transplant recipients, your transplant team may recommend and work with an obstetrician who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.