Study Authors: Tsung-Chieh Yao, Ya-Wen Huang, et al.; Beth I. Wallace, Akbar K. Waljee
Target Audience and Goal Statement: Primary care physicians, rheumatologists, pulmonologists, dermatologists, gastroenterologists, cardiologists
The goal of this study was to examine the associations between oral corticosteroid bursts and severe adverse events among adults in Taiwan.
What were the associations between steroid bursts and severe adverse events, specifically gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, sepsis, and heart failure?
Study Synopsis and Perspective:
It has long been known that long-term use of corticosteroids can be both effective and toxic. Long-term use is associated with adverse effects such as infections, GI bleeding/ulcers, cardiovascular disease (CVD), Cushing syndrome, diabetes and metabolic syndromes, cataracts, glaucoma, and osteoporosis. Most clinical practice guidelines caution against long-term steroid use unless medically necessary.
In a retrospective cohort study and self-controlled case series, prescriptions for oral steroid bursts were found to be associated with increased risks for gastrointestinal bleeding, sepsis, and heart failure within the first month after initiation, despite a median exposure of just 3 days.
Note that the risks were highest 5 to 30 days after exposure, and attenuated during the subsequent 31 to 90 days.
Instead, clinical practice guidelines recommend steroid bursts for inflammatory ailments such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Waljee and colleagues noted in 2017 that they are most commonly used for upper respiratory infections, suggesting that many people are receiving steroids in the real world.
In a retrospective cohort study and self-controlled case series, prescriptions for oral steroid bursts -- defined as short courses of oral corticosteroids for 14 or fewer days -- were found to be associated with increased risks for GI bleeding, sepsis, and heart failure within the first month after initiation, despite a median exposure of just 3 days, according to Tsung-Chieh Yao, MD, PhD, of Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taoyuan, and colleagues.
The risks were highest 5 to 30 days after exposure, and attenuated during the subsequent 31 to 90 days, they reported in Annals of Internal Medicine.
The self-controlled case series was based on national medical claims records. Included were adults, ages 20-64, covered by Taiwan's National Health Insurance in 2013-2015.
Out of a population of more than 15.8 million, study authors identified 2,623,327 people who received a steroid burst during the study period. These individuals were age 38 on average, and 55.3% were women. About 85% had no baseline comorbid conditions.
The most common indications for the steroid burst were skin disorders and respiratory tract infections.
The incidence rates among patients prescribed steroid bursts were 27.1 per 1,000 person-years for GI bleeding (incidence rate ratio [IRR] 1.80, 95% CI 1.75-1.84), 1.5 per 1,000 person-years for sepsis (IRR 1.99, 95% CI 1.70-2.32), and 1.3 per 1,000 person-years for heart failure (IRR 2.37, 95% CI 2.13-2.63).
Absolute risk elevations were similar in patients with and without comorbid conditions, meaning that the potential for harm was not limited to those at high risk for these adverse events.
The study authors acknowledged that they could not adjust for disease severity and major lifestyle factors such as alcohol use, smoking, and body mass index; because these factors were static, the effect could be eliminated using the self-controlled case series design. Their reliance on prescription data also meant they could not tell if patients actually complied with oral corticosteroid therapy. Furthermore, the exclusion of the elderly and younger populations also left room for underestimation of the risks of steroid bursts, they said.
Source References: Annals of Internal Medicine 2020; DOI: 10.7326/M20-0432
Editorial: Annals of Internal Medicine 2020; DOI: 10.7326/M20-4234
Study Highlights and Explanation of Findings:
Over the 3-year study period, steroid bursts were commonly prescribed to adults. Such prescriptions were written for common conditions, including skin disorders and upper respiratory tract infections. The highest risks for GI bleeding, sepsis, and heart failure occurred within the first month after receipt of the steroid burst, and this risk was attenuated during the subsequent 31 to 90 days.
"Our findings are important for physicians and guideline developers because short-term use of oral corticosteroids is common and the real-world safety of this approach remains unclear," the researchers wrote. Notably, one corticosteroid that fits the bill is dexamethasone -- a medication that holds promise for the treatment of critically ill COVID-19 patients, although it is not generally prescribed orally for these patients.
Based on preliminary results, the NIH's COVID-19 treatment guidelines panel recommended the use of "dexamethasone (at a dose of 6 mg per day for up to 10 days) in patients with COVID-19 who are mechanically ventilated and in patients with COVID-19 who require supplemental oxygen but who are not mechanically ventilated." In addition, they recommend "against using dexamethasone in patients with COVID-19 who do not require supplemental oxygen."
"We are now learning that bursts as short as 3 days may increase risk for serious AEs [adverse events], even in young and healthy people. As providers, we must reflect on how and why we prescribe corticosteroids to develop strategies that prevent avoidable harms," wrote Beth Wallace, MD, and Akbar Waljee, MD, both of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and Michigan Medicine.
On the basis of the reported risk differences in the study, Wallace and Waljee calculated that one million patients exposed to corticosteroid bursts experienced 41,200 GI bleeding events, 400 cases of sepsis, and 4,000 cases of new heart failure per year that were directly attributed to this brief treatment.
"Although many providers already avoid corticosteroids in elderly patients and those with comorbid conditions, prescribing short bursts to 'low-risk' patients has generally been viewed as innocuous, even in cases where the benefit is unclear. However, Yao and colleagues provide evidence that this practice may risk serious harm, making it difficult to justify in cases where corticosteroid use lacks evidence of meaningful benefit," they wrote in an accompanying editorial.
"Medication-related risks for AEs can, of course, be outweighed by major treatment benefit. However, this study and prior work show that corticosteroid bursts are frequently prescribed for self-limited conditions, where evidence of benefit is lacking," Wallace and Waljee noted.
"As we reflect on how to respond to these findings, it is useful to note the many parallels between use of corticosteroid bursts and that of other short-term medications, such as antibiotics and opiates. All of these treatments have well-defined indications but can cause net harm when used -- as they frequently are -- when evidence of benefit is low," they emphasized.
Last Updated August 07, 2020
Reviewed by Dori F. Zaleznik, MD Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (Retired), Harvard Medical School, Boston
Annals of Internal Medicine
Source Reference: Yao TC, et al "Association between oral corticosteroid bursts and severe adverse events: a nationwide population-based cohort study" Ann Intern Med 2020; DOI: 10.7326/M20-0432.
Annals of Internal Medicine
Source Reference: Wallace BI, Waljee AK "Burst case scenario: why shorter may not be any better when it comes to corticosteroids" Ann Intern Med 2020; DOI: 10.7326/M20-4234.
Source Reference: Lou N "Sobering Data on Risks of Short-Term Oral Corticosteroids" 2020.