Immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome: ‘Why is my patient getting worse?’


Diagnosing IRIS

Broadly, IRIS presents as a clinical deterioration after ART initiation, with localized tissue inflammation, with or without a systemic inflammatory response, but the presentation of IRIS varies depending on the underlying OI or illness. In most cases, IRIS occurs within 4-8 weeks of ART initiation or regimen change. A rise in CD4 count often but does not always precede IRIS and is not a diagnostic criterion. There is no diagnostic test for IRIS, and when assessing a patient for possible IRIS, clinicians should exclude HIV disease progression, new infections, OI drug resistance, OI treatment nonadherence, and drug reactions as possible causes for inflammatory signs or symptoms.

Treatment of IRIS

Most cases of IRIS are mild, and patients can be reassured that the symptoms will resolve with time. Clinicians should interrupt ART only if a patient has a severe, life-threatening case of IRIS. Unnecessary ART interruption may increase a patient’s risk of new opportunistic infections, recurring IRIS upon resumption of ART, and development of HIV-drug resistance. Any newly unmasked OIs should be treated promptly while ART is continued. For patients with severe IRIS, clinicians can use prednisone to treat inflammatory symptoms – generally for 1-2 weeks, followed by a taper as needed. Prednisone, however, should not be used in patients with cryptococcal meningitis or Kaposi sarcoma as it is associated with worse outcomes.14-17

In patients newly diagnosed with HIV, prompt initiation of ART is, with the exceptions outlined above, the highest priority. IRIS is an unfortunate complication of ART, and patients may be discouraged when they find themselves feeling worse shortly after starting treatment. While providing supportive and symptomatic care, clinicians can reassure patients by explaining that immune reconstitution is, in fact, the goal of ART and that their symptoms do not represent the progression of HIV disease. It is hoped that with more frequent HIV testing, earlier diagnosis, and earlier ART initiation at higher CD4 counts, IRIS will become a less frequent nuisance to patients and providers.

Dr. Brust is in the department of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, New York. He reported having no relevant financial relationships. A version of this article first appeared on


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