Study objective: We compare oral dexamethasone with placebo for the relief of pain in children with acute pharyngitis.
Methods: We performed a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of children aged 5 to 16 years who presented to the emergency department with acute pharyngitis. Children rated their pain on a standardized color analog scale and had a rapid streptococcal antigen detection test performed to determine group assignment. Children were randomized to dexamethasone (0.6 mg/kg, maximum dose 10 mg) or placebo. Blinded research assistants called all families daily to determine pain scores until the point of complete pain relief. The primary outcome measures were the time to clinically significant pain relief and the time to complete pain relief.
Results: A total of 184 children were enrolled in the study. There were 85 children in the antigen-positive group, of whom 45 were randomized to dexamethasone and 40 to placebo. In children with group A beta-hemolytic streptococcal pharyngitis, the median time to clinically significant pain relief was 6 hours in the dexamethasone group versus 11.5 hours in the placebo group (P =.02; effect size of 5.5 hours with 95% confidence interval [CI] of 1.0 and 10.0 hours), and the time to complete pain relief was similar (36 hours for placebo versus 40 hours for dexamethasone, P =.86; effect size of 4.0 hours with 95% CI of -9.3 and 17.3 hours) in the placebo group. There were 99 children enrolled in the antigen-negative group, of whom 47 received dexamethasone and 52 received placebo. In this group, the median time to clinically significant pain relief was 13 hours in the dexamethasone group versus 9 hours in the placebo group (P =.32; effect size of 4 hours with 95% CI of -2 and 10 hours), and the time to complete pain relief was similar (48 hours for placebo versus 50 hours for dexamethasone, P =.61; effect size of 2 hours with 95% CI of -11.8 and 15.8 hours).
Conclusion: For all children with acute pharyngitis, oral dexamethasone does not decrease the time to onset of clinically significant pain relief or time to complete pain relief. However, in the subset of children with positive antigen detection test results, there is a statistically significant improvement in time to onset of pain relief, but it is of marginal clinical importance.