Colchicine is a plant-based alkaloid, extracted from Colchicum autumnale (autumn crocus, meadow saffron) and Gloriosa superba (glory lily) used to treat gout and some other inflammatory conditions. It is considered a high-risk medicine because it is associated with significant toxicity when not used correctly.
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This is a revision of a previously published article. What’s new for this update:
- Changes have been made to the recommended acute and prophylactic colchicine regimens for patients with gout
- Updated indications for urate-lowering treatment are noted, which are discussed further in “Part
1: Talking about gout: time for a re-think”
Colchicine is a plant-based alkaloid, extracted from Colchicum autumnale (autumn crocus, meadow saffron) and Gloriosa
superba (glory lily) used to treat gout and some other inflammatory conditions.1 It is considered a high-risk medicine
because it is associated with significant toxicity when not used correctly.
Colchicine has long been used to treat acute flares of gout, due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Although not an
approved indication, colchicine is also used for prophylaxis of gout flares, particularly during the first few
months of urate-lowering treatment (usually with allopurinol). Colchicine reduces the inflammatory reaction to
urate crystals through multiple pathways, e.g. by inhibiting neutrophil migration and
adhesion and phagocytosis in the area of inflammation. butThere is no evidence that colchicine
affects uric acid production or excretion.2
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), e.g. naproxen, and low-dose corticosteroids are also used for acute
management of gout flares and prophylaxis of flares during the initiation of urate-lowering treatment. For many patients,
NSAIDs are associated with fewer adverse effects and a lower risk of toxicity than colchicine,3 and may be the preferred treatment.
However, colchicine is still an important treatment option as it is particularly useful for patients with co-morbidities,
such as diabetes, renal impairment and gastric ulcer disease, in whom NSAIDs and prednisone may cause significant adverse
Colchicine can cause significant toxicity and death
Colchicine has a narrow therapeutic index, which means that the range between therapeutic and toxic doses is small,
and in some cases they overlap.1 Acute overdose exceeding 0.5 mg/kg is usually fatal, and doses as low as 0.18 mg/kg have resulted in deaths in New Zealand.1, 6, 7
In a case series of nine patients presenting
with colchicine overdose in the Auckland region over a 15 year period, eight died.6 Four of the patients had taken an
accidental overdose of colchicine (ranging from 18 – 24 mg) due to lack of knowledge about the medicine.6 Colchicine is
particularly toxic to children and even one or two tablets can cause serious toxicity.5
Gastrointestinal disturbance is usually the first sign of toxicity
Abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting are usually the first symptoms of colchicine toxicity. A burning sensation
in the throat, abdomen or on the skin has also been reported. These symptoms, particularly diarrhoea, can also occur with
doses within the therapeutic range. Later features of toxicity (24 hours to seven days after ingestion) include tachypnoea,
electrolyte disorders (e.g. hypocalcaemia, hypophosphataemia), hypovolaemia, haematological effects (e.g. leukopaenia,
thrombocytopaenia), cardiac dysrhythmias, renal failure and liver damage.1, 5, 6 The cause of death is usually progressive
multiple organ failure and sepsis.1
Adverse effects can occur even at “safe” doses
Historical colchicine dose instructions included the advice to continue dosing until the pain settled or gastrointestinal
adverse effects occurred. Since then, the standard dose instructions have been revised to improve safety. Patients are advised
to stop taking colchicine immediately if they experience abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting, or a burning feeling
in their throat, stomach or on their skin.5
Table 1 shows the current New Zealand dosing recommendations for colchicine used in patients with gout.5, 7,
8 This regimen is similar to current Australian guidelines, which also advise a low dose approach. A study comparing low-dose colchicine
(1.2 mg followed by 0.6 mg in 1 hour; 1.8 mg total) with high-dose colchicine (1.2 mg followed by 0.6 mg every hour for
6 hours; 4.8 mg total) found that efficacy of the low-dose regimen was comparable to the high-dose regimen, however, there
was a significant reduction in the rate of adverse effects with the low dose regimen.9 .
Interactions increase the risk of colchicine toxicity
The risk of colchicine toxicity is increased when inhibitors of cytochrome P450 3A4 (CYP3A4) or P-glycoprotein (P-gp)
are taken concurrently, e.g. some azole antifungals (e.g. fluconazole), calcium channel blockers (e.g. diltiazem, verapamil)
and macrolide antibiotics (e.g. erythromycin) (see New Zealand Formulary for full list).8
If these medicines are required at the same time as colchicine, the dose of colchicine should be reduced and the patient
monitored for symptoms and signs of colchicine toxicity. These combinations are contraindicated in patients with renal
or hepatic impairment, as this increases the risk of toxicity.10
Table 1: Recommended colchicine dosing regimen7, 8
Treatment of acute gout
Low dose regimen: 1 mg immediately, followed by 500 micrograms after one hour; maximum dose of 1.5 mg over a one-hour period.
If eGFR 10-50 mL/min/1.73m2, reduce the initial dose by half (i.e. 500 micrograms); do not exceed 1.5 mg over three days.
NB: Do not repeat acute course within three days. Do not commence prophylaxis (very low dose colchicine) until 12 hours or more after the acute dose is taken.
Colchicine should ideally be avoided, or used with caution, in frail patients, those who weigh < 50 kg, or patients with hepatic or renal
impairment (eGFR 10–50 mL/min/1.73m2). Colchicine is contraindicated in patients with an eGFR <10 mL/min/1.73m2.
Prophylaxis during initiation of urate-lowering treatment
Very low dose regimen: 500 micrograms, twice daily, during the first three to six months treatment with
a urate-lowering medicine, such as allopurinol
NB: Reduce dose to 500 micrograms, once daily, or on alternate days, if not tolerated, e.g. diarrhoea develops, chronic kidney disease or
concurrent use of CYP3A4/P-glycoprotein inhibitors (e.g. erythromycin, verapamil).
Managing colchicine toxicity
All patients with known or suspected overdose of colchicine, or displaying symptoms of colchicine toxicity, should be
immediately referred to hospital. There is no specific antidote for colchicine when taken in overdose and treatment options
are limited. Haemodialysis and haemoperfusion are not effective because colchicine has a large volume of distribution,
binds significantly to plasma proteins and has rapid distribution.6 If a patient presents soon after ingestion, repeated
doses of activated charcoal can be given to remove colchicine from the gastrointestinal tract. Although colchicine is
rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, removal of even a small amount can improve the patient’s prognosis.6 Patients who do not present soon after ingestion, and those with pre-existing renal or hepatic impairment, have a less
favourable prognosis.6 Patients with colchicine toxicity are managed with supportive care.
Avoiding adverse effects
Manage gout more effectively
Patients who frequently use colchicine for acute gout flares should be encouraged to take long-term urate-lowering treatment,
e.g. allopurinol. Preventative treatment will reduce the frequency of flares, and therefore reduce the need for acute
treatment with colchicine, and the risk of toxicity.11 Urate-lowering treatment is indicated for patients with gout
gout and any of the following features:12
- Two or more flares per year (this includes any flares the patient did not seek medical evaluation for)
- Tophi or erosions on X-ray
- Renal impairment (eGFR < 60 mL/min/1.73 m2)
- Past urolithiasis
- Serum urate level ≥ 0.54 mmol/L
Ideally, urate-lowering treatment should be initiated early before there has been any erosive damage
to joints and before tophi have appeared.
For further information, see: “
Managing gout in primary care”
Provide patients with clear instructions
Patients are at risk of overdose if they have a poor understanding of how to take colchicine and its potential adverse
effects. Appropriate patient education includes:
- Providing clear advice about how to take colchicine, especially the maximum dose
- Advising patients to stop taking colchicine and see their doctor if they develop nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea; unusual
bleeding or bruising; muscle pain or weakness; or numbness or tingling in their fingers or toes
- Ensuring patients are aware that colchicine is not an analgesic for general use and should not be used to manage pain
not due to gout
- Advise patients to tell a doctor or pharmacist about all the medicines they take and to check before taking new medicines
Advice should be tailored to the patient’s level of health literacy. This is particularly important for patients for
whom English is not their first language as it is possible that language barriers, cultural differences and
health literacy may be contributing factors to some accidental overdoses.6
Patient information handouts on colchicine are available from:
What can General Practitioners do?
- Provide patients with clear instructions on how to take colchicine, both verbal and written, and check for understanding.
Advise patients about the dangers of overdose, overuse and the importance of safe storage.
- Limit prescriptions to the anticipated number of tablets required for managing the acute attack of gout
- Prescribe monthly for prophylactic use and ensure colchicine is stopped after three to six months
- Be aware of significant medicine interactions with colchicine
This article is a revision of an original article published by bpacnz in 2014.
The original article was reviewed by Associate Professor Matt Doogue, Clinical Pharmacologist and Endocrinologist,
University of Otago – Christchurch and Canterbury District Health Board.
N.B. Expert reviewers do not write the articles and are not responsible for the final content. bpacnz retains editorial oversight of all content.
- Finkelstein Y, Aks SE, Hutson JR, et al. Colchicine poisoning: the dark side of an ancient drug. Clin Toxicol 2010;48:407–14.
- Leung YY, Hui LLY, Kraus VB. Colchicine – update on mechanisms of action and therapeutic uses 2015;45:341–50.
- Nuki G. Colchicine: its mechanism of action and efficacy in crystal-induced inflammation. Curr Rheumatol Rep 2008;10:218–27.
- Dalbeth N, Gow P, New Zealand Rheumatology Association. Colchicine prescribing in patients with gout. N Z Med J 2011;124:107–8.
- Waitemata District Health Board. Colchicine - safe prescribing - toe the line!! Saferx. 2019. Available from:
- Jayaprakash V, Ansell G, Galler D. Colchicine overdose: the devil is in the detail. N Z Med J 2007;120:U2402.
- Medsafe. Colchicine: painful insights from recent poisoning data in New Zealand. Prescr Update 2021;42:14–6
- New Zealand Formulary (NZF). NZF v109. 2021. Available from: www.nzf.org.nz (Accessed
- Terkeltaub R, Furst D, Bennett K, et al. High versus low dosing of oral colchicine for early acute gout flare: Twenty-four-hour
outcome of the first multicenter, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group, dose-comparison colchicine
study. Arthritis Rheum 2010;62:1060–8.
- Medsafe. Colchicine: Beware of toxicity and interactions. Prescr Update 2011;32:2.
- Dalbeth N, Gow P. Prevention of colchicine toxicity in patients with gout. N Z Med J 2007;120:U2503.
- FitzGerald JD, Dalbeth N, Mikuls T, et al. 2020 American College of Rheumatology Guideline for the Management of Gout. Arthritis Rheumatol 2020;72:879–95.