Background: Glucocorticoids increase the risk of developing critical disease from viral infections. However, primary care practitioners in China use them as antipyretics, potentially exposing hundreds of millions to this risk.
Methods: We enrolled all patients with confirmed pandemic influenza A (pH1N1) virus infection aged ≥3 years with available medical records at 4 Shenyang City hospitals from 20 October to 30 November 2009. A critical patient was any confirmed, hospitalized pH1N1 patient who developed ≥1 of the following: death, respiratory failure, septic shock, failure or insufficiency of ≥2 nonpulmonary organs, mechanical ventilation, or ICU admission. In a retrospective cohort study, we evaluated the risk of developing critical illness in relation to early (≤72 hours of influenza-like illness [ILI] onset) glucocorticoids treatment.
Results: Of the 83 hospitalized case-patients, 46% developed critical illness, 17% died, and 37% recovered and were discharged. Critically ill and other patients did not differ by underlying conditions and severity, median temperature at first clinic visit, and other measured risk factors. Of 17 patients who received early glucocorticoid treatment, 71% subsequently developed critical disease compared with 39% of 66 patients who received late (>72 hours) or no glucocorticoid treatment (RR(M-H) = 1.8, 95% CI = 1.2-2.8, after adjusting for 2 summary variables; ie, presence of underlying diseases and presence of underlying risk factors). Proportional hazards modeling showed that use of glucocorticoids tripled the hazard of developing critical disease (hazard ratio [HR] = 2.9, 95% CI = 1.3-6.2, after adjusting for the same summary variables).
Conclusions: Early use of parenteral glucocorticoids therapy for fever reduction and pneumonia prevention increases the risk for critical disease or death from pH1N1 infection. We recommend that guidelines on glucocorticoid use be established and enforced.