Treatment

How do doctors treat Wilson disease?

Doctors treat Wilson disease with

  • medicines that remove copper from the body, called chelating agents
  • zinc, which prevents the intestines from absorbing copper

In many cases, treatment can improve or prevent symptoms and organ damage. Doctors may also recommend changing your diet to avoid foods that are high in copper.

People who have Wilson disease need lifelong treatment. Stopping treatment may cause acute liver failure. Doctors regularly perform blood and urine tests to check how the treatment is working.

Chelating agents

Penicillamine (Cupramine, Depen) and trientine (Syprine) are two chelating agents used to treat Wilson disease. These medicines remove copper from the body.

Penicillamine is more likely to cause side effects than trientine. Side effects of penicillamine may include fever, rash, kidney problems, or bone marrow problems. Penicillamine may also reduce the activity of vitamin B6, and doctors may recommend taking a vitamin B6 supplement along with penicillamine. In some cases, when people with nervous system symptoms begin taking chelating agents, their symptoms get worse.

When treatment begins, doctors gradually increase the dose of chelating agents. People take higher doses of chelating agents until the extra copper in the body has been removed. When Wilson disease symptoms have improved and tests show that copper is at safe levels, doctors may prescribe lower doses of chelating agents as maintenance treatment. Lifelong maintenance treatment prevents copper from building up again.

Chelating agents may interfere with wound healing, and doctors may prescribe a lower dose of chelating agents for people who are planning to have surgery.

Zinc

Zinc prevents the intestines from absorbing copper. Doctors may prescribe zinc as a maintenance treatment, after chelating agents have removed extra copper from the body. Doctors may also prescribe zinc for people who have Wilson disease but do not yet have symptoms. The most common side effect of zinc is stomach upset.

How do doctors treat Wilson disease in women who are pregnant?

Pregnant women should continue treatment for Wilson disease throughout pregnancy. Doctors may prescribe a lower dose of chelating agents for women who are pregnant. Since the fetus needs a small amount of copper, lowering the dose may keep copper at safe levels without removing too much copper.

In most cases, doctors recommend that women continue to take the full dose of zinc during pregnancy. Experts recommend that women with Wilson disease do not breastfeed if they are taking chelating agents. Penicillamine is present in breast milk and can be harmful to a baby. Experts have little information about the safety of trientine and zinc in breast milk.

How do doctors treat the complications of Wilson disease?

If Wilson disease leads to cirrhosis, doctors can treat health problems and complications related to cirrhosis with medicines, surgery, and other medical procedures.

If Wilson disease causes acute liver failure or liver failure due to cirrhosis, you may need a liver transplant. A liver transplant cures Wilson disease in most cases.

Can I prevent Wilson disease?

You can’t prevent Wilson disease. If you have a first-degree relative—a parent, sibling, or child—with Wilson disease, talk with your doctor about testing you and other family members for the disease. A doctor may be able to diagnose and begin treating Wilson disease before symptoms appear. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce or prevent organ damage.

Doctor talking with a mother and her young daughter.
If you have a first-degree relative with Wilson disease, talk with your doctor about testing you and other family members for the disease.
October 2018
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.