Corticosteroids in the emergency department therapy of acute adult asthma: an evidence-based evaluation

Chest. 1999 Aug;116(2):285-95. doi: 10.1378/chest.116.2.285.


Objective: To review the literature to determine the benefits of corticosteroids (CCSs) (oral, IM, IV, or inhaled) in the treatment of adult patients with acute asthma presenting at an acute-care setting.

Search strategy: A MEDLINE search was conducted using the following terms: (1) Asthma OR Wheez, AND (2) Glucocorticoids OR Steroids, AND (3) Acute OR Emerg. Other sources were the CURRENT CONTENTS database, review articles, reference sections of located studies, and a manual search of the top 15 journals for respiratory and emergency medicine.

Selection criteria: Patients were selected for the study by the following criteria: (1) English language; (2) adult patients with asthma whose acute exacerbations were the primary reason for assessment; (3) involvement in randomized, controlled trials conducted in an emergency care setting; (4) patients had participated in a study investigating a primary research question involving treatment with CCSs; and (5) outcomes based on results of pulmonary function tests and on hospital admission rates.

Results: At the 3-h assessment, only high doses of inhaled CCSs significantly improved pulmonary function compared with placebo (effect size [ES], 0.56; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.15 to 0.97). On the other hand, after receiving IV CCSs, patients required at least 6 to 24 h to show moderate but nonsignificant improvements of pulmonary function (6-h ES, 0.44 [95% CI, -0.01 to 0.89]; 12-h ES, 0.54 [95% CI, -0.08 to 1.17]; and 24-h ES, 0.53 [95% CI, -0.39 to 1.45]). The data from the six studies that we used to pool information on admission rate outcome showed a 32% reduction in favor of the use of IV CCSs (relative risk [RR], 0.68 [95% CI, 0.47 to 0.99]; number needed to treat, 12.5 [95% CI, 7.1 to 50]). However, the pooled effect of the three high-quality studies showed no difference between groups (RR, 1.21; 95% CI, 0.67 to 2.18). Oral CCSs provided a similarly beneficial effect on pulmonary function when compared with parenteral administration (ES, -0.14; 95% CI, -0.82 to 0.31. Finally, the results showed a nonsignificant favorable trend toward improved outcome with medium or high doses of CCSs.

Conclusions: This evidence-based evaluation suggests that the administration of parenteral CCSs to the patient on arrival at the emergency department (ED) neither improves airflow obstruction nor reduces the need for hospitalization. Parenteral CCSs probably require >6 to 24 h to begin to act. Comprehensible conclusions about admission rates in the ED setting are difficult to make. At the 3-h assessment, only high doses of inhaled CCSs (in one study) significantly improved pulmonary function compared with placebo. IV and oral CCSs appear to have equivalent effects, and there is a tendency toward improvement in pulmonary function with medium or high doses.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asthma / drug therapy*
  • Asthma / physiopathology
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use*
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Glucocorticoids