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Isotretinoin users do not have higher suicide risk: meta-analysis



Isotretinoin users have no increased risk of suicide or psychiatric conditions on a population level, a meta-analysis of 25 studies that included 1.6 million patients suggests.

Instead, those who are treated with the drug for severe acne may have a lower risk of suicide attempts 2-4 years after treatment, wrote the authors, led by Nicole Kye Wen Tan, MBBS, of Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore. The results were published online in JAMA Dermatology.

The analysis showed that the 1-year absolute risk from between two and eight studies of suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, completed suicides, and self-harm were each less than 0.5%. For comparison, the absolute risk of depression was 3.83% (95% confidence interval [CI], 2.45-5.93; I2 [measuring heterogeneity] = 77%) in 11 studies.

Less likely to attempt suicide

Isotretinoin users were less likely than were nonusers to attempt suicide at 2 years (relative risk [RR], 0.92; 95% CI, 0.84-1.00; I2 = 0%); 3 years (RR, 0.86; 95% CI, 0.77-0.95; I2 = 0%); and 4 years (RR, 0.85; 95% CI, 0.72-1.00; I2 = 23%) following treatment.

Additionally, isotretinoin was not linked with the risk of “all psychiatric disorders” (RR, 1.08; 95% CI, 0.99-1.19; I2 = 0%).

Among the study limitations, the authors noted that because of the widespread claims that isotretinoin can affect mental health, it is plausible that patients at high risk of psychiatric illness were less likely to be treated with isotretinoin in the first place, which could have resulted in underestimating psychiatric risks in the observational studies.

“Two things can be true”

John S. Barbieri, MD, MBA, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Advanced Acne Therapeutics Clinic at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who was not involved with this research, said the study helps confirm what he and many others have long thought.

Dr. John S. Barbieri, director of the Advanced Acne Therapeutics Clinic at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston Dr. Barbieri

Dr. John S. Barbieri

The results of the meta-analysis show that “two things can be true, which often gets lost with isotretinoin,” he said. At a population level, isotretinoin improves mental health but on the individual level, it may cause rare side effects that harm mental health, he added.

In making decisions on the use of isotretinoin, he continued, “we should feel reassured that the likely outcome is improved mental health compared to other alternatives that we have, but at the same time we should be vigilant about monitoring a patient’s mental health while they are being treated with isotretinoin.”

He said that this topic draws extreme views on social media, with people who want the drug off the market and those who discount concerns altogether.

“I think the real answer is a little more in the middle,” he said. “We still have to be thoughtful when we use it.”

Because outcomes such as suicide in patients on isotretinoin are not common, Dr. Barbieri said, smaller studies individually have lacked precision on effect. The size of this meta-analysis helps add confidence in the results, he said.

In addition, this study can help clinicians point to numbers when they talk with their patients about benefits and risks, he said.


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