Steroids should be avoided in the treatment of the current novel coronavirus


Steroids should be avoided in the treatment of the current novel coronavirus, experts have advised.

A commentary article published in The Lancet concludes that, based on evidence from previous outbreaks of similar types of infection such as SARS, steroids provide little benefit to patients and could do more harm than good.

They say that clinicians should still administer the treatment for conditions such as asthma and other inflammatory diseases.

Steroids are often used by doctors to reduce inflammation, which is present in the lungs of patients with novel coronavirus.

Lung inflammation was observed during the SARS and MERS outbreaks, which were caused by coronaviruses.

However, steroids also impair the immune system’s ability to fight viruses and other infections that often develop in patients with life-threatening illness.

Experts say that, on balance, using the drugs could cause significant harm.

One retrospective study of critically-ill patients with MERS found that almost half of the people that received steroids needed additional treatments such as assistance in breathing, drugs to increase blood pressure, and a form of dialysis.

Those given steroids were found to take longer to clear the virus from their bodies.

Other studies found that steroids caused harm in the SARS outbreak, with the virus still present in those who took the drugs up to three weeks after infection.

Dr J. Kenneth Baillie, lead author of the commentary article and Academic Consultant in Critical Care Medicine at University of Edinburgh, said: “During this current coronavirus outbreak clinicians are faced with some tough decisions on how to treat people who have been infected. After looking carefully at what evidence is available, we would advise that steroids should not

be used for treatment of lung injury caused by this new virus.

If steroids are used, it should be as part of a clinical trial so that we can find out if they are helping or harming patients.”

Influenza virus infections cause excessive hospitalizations and deaths among adults during seasonal peaks and pandemics. Among all patients infected with H7N9, 97% presented with rapidly progressive pneumonia, and 71% presented with pneumonia caused by influenza virus infection and complicated by acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS); the death rate in these patients was as high as 46% [1].

In patients infected with H1N1, the rate of pneumonia was as high as 40%, 25% of patients were admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU), and 36% of those in the ICU developed ARDS [2].

Influenza virus-induced pneumonia is related to an uncontrolled response of the immune system [35]. Corticosteroids have been reported to reduce mortality in patients with community-based pneumonia [6].

Patients with life-threatening respiratory failure associated with influenza pneumonia also commonly receive corticosteroids. Animal model studies found that corticosteroid treatment decreased mortality and ameliorated the acute lung injury induced by influenza pneumonia [78].

Steroids might play a role in inhibiting inflammation via mechanisms such as reducing the overproduction of proinflammatory cytokines/chemokines and an excess of activated lymphocytes, which may result in severe lung damage and delayed recovery [911].

However, the results of clinical studies of the effect of corticosteroids remain controversial. In some studies, such as Diaz’s study, the use of corticosteroid therapy was not significantly associated with mortality [12], while in others, such as the study of Brun-Buisson, early corticosteroid therapy was found to be potentially harmful in patients with influenza pneumonia [13].

Therefore, based on these controversial findings related to corticosteroid use in adult patients with influenza pneumonia, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of all published trials that have compared mortality between influenza pneumonia patients who received corticosteroid therapy and those who did not. We aimed to identify the roles of corticosteroids and their influence on clinical outcomes in patients with influenza pneumonia.


In the present systematic review and meta-analysis, the use of corticosteroids increased mortality, ICU LOS, and the rate of secondary infection in patients with influenza pneumonia but did not influence MV days.

Our analysis demonstrates that corticosteroids not only increase mortality but also prolong ICU LOS. There are several potential mechanisms that could underlie the higher mortality and ICU LOS observed in patients who received corticosteroids. First, corticosteroids reduce systemic inflammation [23].

Once attacked by the virus, the immune system is activated [24]. Corticosteroids inhibit immune reactions by suppressing inflammatory reactions, preventing the migration of inflammatory cells from the circulation to issues by suppressing the synthesis of chemokines and cytokines, and inhibiting immune responses mediated by T cells and B cells [2526].

Thus, the alterations in immune reactions caused by corticosteroids might lead to prolonged virus viremia and delay viral clearance, ultimately increasing the risk of mortality [627].

One of our included studies showed that patients who received corticosteroids had lower procalcitonin levels (0.5 vs 0.7 ng/mL, P = 0.02) [20], while another showed that the patients who died had a higher rate of immunosuppression (34.7% vs. 15.1%, P = 0.02) [13].

Second, our analysis found that patients who received corticosteroids were more likely to develop secondary bacterial pneumonia due to immunosuppression.

In addition, longer ICU LOS has also been shown to contribute to secondary infection [28]. Third, due to immune-suppressing effects of corticosteroids, the risk of developing critical illness is increased in corticosteroid-treated patients [29].

One study found that the rate of shock was 8% in the corticosteroid group and 4.4% in the control group [19]. In addition, the invasive MV rate was also increased by corticosteroids, at 38.4% in the corticosteroid group and 4.5% in the control group [19].

Fourth, other corticosteroid-related adverse outcomes, such as cardiovascular events, including fluid retention, premature atherosclerotic disease, and arrhythmias, also increased mortality in patients with influenza pneumonia [3032].

In the included studies, patients who used more vasopressors had higher mortality [13]. Thus, the above mechanisms may contribute to why patients with influenza pneumonia had higher mortality.

We also performed a subgroup analysis according to viral types. In all types of influenza virus, mortality was higher in those treated with corticosteroids than in controls, although symptoms were more rapidly progressive patients and the risk of ARDS higher in patients infected with H7N9 [12].

Moreover, we included more large sample studies than were included in previous meta-analyses related to influenza [33].

In addition, we focused only on patients with influenza pneumonia and not on those infected with influenza alone or those with influenza who were admitted to the ICU.

Influenza pneumonia has been shown to be related to life-threatening respiratory failure and mortality [34]; however, not all patients infected with influenza develop influenza pneumonia.

In the present study, we tried to determine whether patients who develop influenza pneumonia benefit from corticosteroids.

Nevertheless, we may have omitted patients with influenza pneumonia who were included in trials that studied all influenza patients, and this may have influenced the final results of our analysis.

Studies exploring the effects of corticosteroids on patients with community-based pneumonia have produced positive results [6].

The main reason for these findings is that those infected by bacteria benefit from corticosteroids when given appropriate antibiotic therapy.

The early use of antiviral therapy could also reduce mortality. Seven studies reported the use of antiviral therapy.

On the one hand, we did not explore the exact role of antiviral therapy in the effects of corticosteroids due to a lack of raw data.

On the other hand, we also only included patients who developed influenza pneumonia, which resulted in the included cases being more severe than those included in studies in which patients using antiviral therapy were included.

Moreover, patients who received corticosteroids were more likely to have a superinfection, such as secondary bacterial pneumonia or invasive fungal infection, and exacerbation of underlying conditions, and they also had more prolonged ICU LOS than was found in the no-corticosteroid group [35].

In addition, one study showed that the use of corticosteroids delayed the initiation of neuraminidase inhibitors, with ICU LOS longer in patients who did not receive neuraminidase inhibitors within 5 days of illness [18].

In terms of MV days, corticosteroids did not seem to make a difference. However, only three studies in our analysis reported data on MV days, and the insignificant results might therefore be due to the fact that we had such a small sample size.

In other words, a type II error might have occurred because of the limited number of patients.

Other than the aforementioned reasons, the effects of corticosteroids could also be influenced by the following three factors. First, the condition of the respiratory system could be responsible.

Corticosteroids can provide benefits to patients with an oxygenation index (OI; partial arterial pressure of oxygen/fraction of inspired oxygen) < 300, but it may also increase the 60-day mortality rate in those with OI > 300 [19].

Second, the time of corticosteroid initiation could be a contributing factor. Compared with no treatment, administration within the first 3 days was more strongly associated with an increased risk of death [1336].

Moreover, corticosteroids are beneficial if used early after ARDS onset but otherwise increase mortality. In reality, however, some patients received corticosteroids after ARDS onset, which offset the negative effect of corticosteroids on mortality [37].

Third, the dose of corticosteroids may affect results. High doses of corticosteroids have been associated with greater mortality and a longer duration of viral shedding [15]. In Li’s study, mortality was twice as high in patients who received a high dose of corticosteroids than in those who received a low-moderate dose [19].

The initial dose of corticosteroids varied among our included studies, and some of them did not report related information. Additionally, due to the study design, not all patients in one study received a unified dose of corticosteroids. Moreover, studies have shown that corticosteroids are usually initiated when shock is non-responsive to fluids and vasopressors.

Thus, patients who receive corticosteroids tend to have more severe disease, as evidenced by their higher APACHE II scores [36]. It is therefore unclear whether their increased risk of mortality is directly associated with corticosteroid use or due to the severity of disease. None of the studies included in our analysis was a randomized controlled study (RCT).

Because the influencing factors could not be controlled, our analysis was highly heterogeneous. This might explain why corticosteroids did not make a difference in some studies.

Despite these findings, the limitations of our study should be addressed. First, the applicability of our study results is limited because none of the studies included in our analysis was an RCT. Second, only two studies reported the dose of corticosteroids and the duration of it use.

Third, the baseline characteristics of the patients can influence outcomes and varied among the studies included in our analysis. For example, younger age and fewer underlying diseases might be associated with fewer secondary infections [38].

Finally, the effect of corticosteroids on patients with influenza pneumonia remains controversial. Previous studies that showed a negative effect for corticosteroids may have influenced how the clinicians used corticosteroids in our included studies. Finally, there may have been selection bias because none of the studies included was an RCT.


Corticosteroids could increase mortality in patients with influenza pneumonia. Randomized controlled studies are needed to further verify this conclusion.

Journal Reference:

  1. Clark D Russell, Jonathan E Millar, J Kenneth Baillie. Clinical evidence does not support corticosteroid treatment for 2019-nCoV lung injuryThe Lancet, 2020 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30317-2


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