Use of glucocorticoids in the critical care setting: Science and clinical evidence

Pharmacol Ther. 2020 Feb;206:107428. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2019.107428. Epub 2019 Oct 15.


Glucocorticoids (GC) in all its various forms and formulations are likely one of the most commonly used pharmacologic agents in medicine. Their use can be profoundly therapeutic but are also associated with a myriad of acute and chronic side effects. It is fairly well-accepted in the medical community that GC can be life-saving when used in critically ill patients with severe exacerbations of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV-associated pneumocystosis, and systemic vasculitides. However, the adjunctive role of GC is much more controversial in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), septic shock, community-acquired pneumonia, and several other serious medical conditions. Despite such controversies, GC should at least be considered for patients with fulminant manifestations of the following conditions as there is equipoise to indicate that GC may improve outcome with acceptable risks: (i) severe ARDS with refractory hypoxemia despite one to two weeks of state-of-the-art management, (ii) recalcitrant, vasopressor-dependent septic shock, (iii) non-influenza, severe community-acquired pneumonia, and (iv) severe alcoholic hepatitis. The bases for these controversies is likely due to both host factors (e.g., differences in GC resistance and susceptibility to adverse effects) and different phenotypes of any one disease state; e.g., different pathogenesis and pathogens under the rubric of "sepsis." Elucidation of better biomarkers to determine the underlying pathogenic phenotype will significantly advance our understanding and prediction of which critically ill patients will benefit from GC and who would experience a deleterious effect from its use.

Keywords: Acute respiratory distress syndrome; Corticosteroids; Critical care; Pneumonia; Septic shock.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Critical Care*
  • Critical Illness
  • Glucocorticoids / adverse effects
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use*
  • Humans


  • Glucocorticoids