Corticosteroids, prescribed for as many as one in five Americans in commercial insurance plans, can significantly increase the risk for adverse effects even when given short term, as found in a study recently published in BMJ (British Medical Journal). The authors note that though the severe adverse effects of longer term use or oral corticosteroids is well known, little has been understood about short term risks.
“…long term use of corticosteroids is generally avoided, given the risks of serious acute complications such as infection, venous thromboembolism, avascular necrosis, and fracture, as well as chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoporosis, and other features of iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome…Indeed, corticosteroids are one of the most common reasons for admission to hospital for drug related adverse events…In contrast with long term use, however, the risk of complications from short term use is much less understood, and evidence is generally insufficient to guide clinicians.”
Corticosteroids often used where evidence is lacking
Until now little is know about the potential harms of short term use for the range of outpatient conditions for which they are often prescribed.
“…anecdotally corticosteroids are also used often in the short term to treat many other prevalent conditions where evidence is lacking, such as non-specific musculoskeletal pain and rashes. Despite such pervasive indications for use of oral corticosteroids, little is known about the prescribing patterns of short term use of these drugs in the general adult population, or their potential harm.”
Thus they set out to correlate short term use in an outpatient population and the risk of acute adverse events by analyzing data for 1,548,945 subjects who were prescribed oral corticosteroids for less than 30 days (non-oral forms were excluded from this study).
“We chose three acute events listed as adverse events on the Food and Drug Administration mandated drug label for oral corticosteroids (sepsis, venous thromboembolism, fracture). Given the inherent challenges related to confounding, we employed a self controlled case series (SCCS) design. This design has been used to examine drug and vaccine safety.”
The most common prescription was a six day methylprednisolone “dosepak”, most commonly given for upper respiratory tract infections, spinal conditions, and intervertebral disc disorders, allergies, bronchitis, and (non-bronchitic) lower respiratory tract disorders by family medicine and general internal medicine practitioners, but also by specialists in emergency medicine, otolaryngology, and orthopedics.
Significantly higher rates of sepsis, venous thromboembolism, and fracture
The authors identified a serious risk:
“Within 30 days of drug initiation, there was an increase in rates of sepsis (incidence rate ratio 5.30, 95% confidence interval 3.80 to 7.41), venous thromboembolism (3.33, 2.78 to 3.99), and fracture (1.87, 1.69 to 2.07), which diminished over the subsequent 31-90 days. The increased risk persisted at prednisone equivalent doses of less than 20 mg/day (incidence rate ratio 4.02 for sepsis, 3.61 for venous thromboembolism, and 1.83 for fracture; all P<0.001).”
It defies common sense to use an agent that suppresses the immune system during an infection in all but the rare cases of severe immune excess, especially when there are numerous, more benign alternatives.
Quoted in Medscape Family Medicine, lead author Akbar K. Waljee, MD, an assistant professor of gastroenterology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, states:
“On the basis of these findings, Dr Waljee recommended prescribing the smallest possible amount of corticosteroids for treating the condition in question. “If there are alternatives to steroids, we should be use those when possible,” he said in the release. “Steroids may work faster, but they aren’t as risk-free as you might think.”
From the study:
This study of 1.5 million privately insured adults (18-64 years) in the US found that one in five patients in an outpatient setting used short term oral corticosteroid over a three year period (2012-14)
Within 30 days of corticosteroid initiation, the incidence of acute adverse events that result in major morbidity and mortality (sepsis, venous thromboembolism, fracture) increased by twofold, to fivefold above background rates
Greater attention to initiating prescriptions of these drugs and monitoring for adverse events may potentially improve patient safety
The authors conclude:
“Oral corticosteroids are frequently prescribed for short term use in the US for a variety of common conditions and by numerous provider specialties. Over a three year period, approximately one in five American adults in a commercially insured plan used oral corticosteroids for less than 30 days. The short term use of these drugs was associated with increased rates of sepsis, venous thromboembolism, and fracture; even at relatively low doses.”