Meta-analysis: the effect of steroids on survival and shock during sepsis depends on the dose

Ann Intern Med. 2004 Jul 6;141(1):47-56. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-141-1-200407060-00014.


Background: Previous meta-analyses demonstrated that high-dose glucocorticoids were not beneficial in sepsis. Recently, lower-dose glucocorticoids have been studied.

Purpose: To compare recent trials of glucocorticoids for sepsis with previous glucocorticoid trials.

Data sources: Systematic MEDLINE search for studies published between 1988 and 2003.

Study selection: Randomized, controlled trials of sepsis that examined the effects of glucocorticoids on survival or vasopressor requirements.

Data extraction: Two investigators independently collected data on patient and study characteristics, treatment interventions, and outcomes.

Data synthesis: The 5 included trials revealed a consistent and beneficial effect of glucocorticoids on survival (I2 = 0%; relative benefit, 1.23, [95% CI, 1.01 to 1.50]; P = 0.036) and shock reversal (I2 = 0%; relative benefit, 1.71 [CI, 1.29 to 2.26]; P < 0.001). These effects were the same regardless of adrenal function. In contrast, 8 trials published before 1989 demonstrated a survival disadvantage with steroid treatment (I2 = 14%; relative benefit, 0.89 [CI, 0.82 to 0.97]; P = 0.008). In comparison with the earlier trials, the more recent trials administered steroids later after patients met enrollment criteria (median, 23 hours vs. <2 hours; P = 0.02), for longer courses (6 days vs. 1 day; P = 0.01), and in lower total dosages (hydrocortisone equivalents, 1209 mg vs. 23 975 mg; P = 0.01) to patients with higher control group mortality rates (mean, 57% vs. 34%; P = 0.06) who were more likely to be vasopressor-dependent (100% vs. 65%; P = 0.03). The relationship between steroid dose and survival was linear, characterized by benefit at low doses and increasing harm at higher doses (P = 0.02).

Limitations: We could not analyze time-related improvements in medical care and potential bias secondary to nonreporting of negative study results.

Conclusions: Although short courses of high-dose glucocorticoids decreased survival during sepsis, a 5- to 7-day course of physiologic hydrocortisone doses with subsequent tapering increases survival rate and shock reversal in patients with vasopressor-dependent septic shock.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Insufficiency / physiopathology
  • Glucocorticoids / administration & dosage*
  • Humans
  • Prognosis
  • Sepsis / drug therapy*
  • Sepsis / mortality*
  • Shock, Septic / physiopathology
  • Shock, Septic / prevention & control*


  • Glucocorticoids