Corticosteroids: clinical pharmacology and therapeutic use

Drugs. 1978 Sep;16(3):238-55. doi: 10.2165/00003495-197816030-00006.


The widespread use of corticosteroids in clinical practice emphasises the need for a thorough understanding of their metabolic effects. In general, the actions of corticosteroids on carbohydrate, protein, and lipid metabolism result in increased hepatic capacity for gluconeogenesis and enhanced catabolic actions upon muscle, skin, lymphoid, adipose and connective tissues. Because of the morbidity associated with steroid therapy, the clinician must carefully consider in each case the gains that can reasonably be expected from corticosteroid therapy versus the inevitable undesirable side effects of prolonged therapy. Thus, it is important to remember that the enhanced anti-inflammatory activity of the various synthetic analogues of cortisol is not dissociated from the expected catabolic actions of glucocorticoid hormones. Replacement therapy with physiological doses of cortisol in primary or secondary adrenal insufficiency is intended to simulate the normal daily secretion of cortisol. Short term, high dose suppressive glucocorticoid therapy is indicated in the treatment of medical emergencies such as necrotising vasculitis, status asthmaticus and anaphylactic shock. With improvement of the underlying disorder, the steroid dosage can be rapidly tapered and then discontinued over a 2 to 3 day period. Long term, high dose suppressive therapy is often commonly used to treat certain diseases (see sections 4.7.2 and 4.7.3). In this setting, suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis may persist for as long as 9 to 12 months following steroid withdrawal if steroid doses are administered in the supraphysiological range for longer than 2 weeks. In general, higher doses, longer duration of usage, and frequent daily administration are all correlated with the severity of pituitary ACTH suppression. When steroid therapy is to be withdrawn, gradual tapering of the dosage is necessary; the steroid dosage should also be given as a single morning dose if possible. Rapid or total withdrawal of the steroid therapy may be associated with exacerbation of the underlying disease or with a steroid withdrawal syndrome. An additional important point to remember in any withdrawal programme is that the steroid dosage should be appropriately increased for an exacerbation of the underlying disease or for intercurrent major stress. Alternate day therapy is recommended as a steroid maintenance programme for patients requiring high dose glucocorticoid therapy over a prolonged period of time. Thus, it is usually employed to maintain a therapeutic benefit which had previously been extablished by daily steroid treatment. Complications resulting from corticosteroid therapy include: (1) proximal muscle weakness; (2) osteopenia; (3) unmasking of latent diabetes mellitus; (4) sodium retention and/or elevation of mean arterial blood pressure; (5) adverse psychiatric reactions; (6) development of glaucoma; and (7) reactivation of latent infections (such as tuberculosis).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / therapeutic use
  • Blood / drug effects
  • Bone and Bones / drug effects
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Drug Interactions
  • Glucocorticoids / administration & dosage
  • Glucocorticoids / adverse effects
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology*
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use*
  • Half-Life
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Metabolism / drug effects
  • Protein Binding


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone