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Corticosteroids as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of influenza

Lansbury, Louise; Rodrigo, Chamira; Leonardi-Bee, Jo; Nguyen-Van-Tam, Jonathan; Lim, Wei Shen

Corticosteroids as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of influenza Thumbnail


Chamira Rodrigo

Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology

Wei Shen Lim


Specific treatments for influenza are limited to neuraminidase inhibitors and adamantanes. Corticosteroids show evidence of benefit in sepsis and related conditions, most likely due to their anti‐inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties. Although commonly prescribed for severe influenza, there is uncertainty over their potential benefits or harms. This is an update of a review first published in 2016.
To systematically assess the effectiveness and potential adverse effects of corticosteroids as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of influenza, taking into account differences in timing and doses of corticosteroids.
Search methods
We searched CENTRAL (2018, Issue 9), which includes the Cochrane Acute Respiratory infections Group's Specialised Register, MEDLINE (1946 to October week 1, 2018), Embase (1980 to 3 October 2018), CINAHL (1981 to 3 October 2018), LILACS (1982 to 3 October 2018), Web of Science (1985 to 3 October 2018), abstracts from the last three years of major infectious disease and microbiology conferences, and references of included articles. We also searched the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform,, and the ISRCTN registry on 3 October 2018.
Selection criteria
We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs), quasi‐RCTs, and observational studies that compared corticosteroid treatment with no corticosteroid treatment for influenza or influenza‐like illness. We did not restrict studies by language of publication, influenza subtypes, clinical setting, or age of participants. We selected eligible studies in two stages: sequential examination of title and abstract, followed by full text.
Data collection and analysis
Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed risk of bias. We pooled estimates of effect using a random‐effects model, where appropriate. We assessed heterogeneity using the I2 statistic and assessed the certainty of the evidence using the GRADE framework.
Main results
This updated review includes 30 studies (one RCT with two arms and 29 observational studies) with a total of 99,224 participants. We included 19 studies in the original review (n = 3459), all of which were observational, with 13 studies included in the meta‐analysis for mortality. We included 12 new studies in this update (one RCT and 11 observational studies), and excluded one study in the original review as it has been superceded by a more recent analysis. Twenty‐one studies were included in the meta‐analysis (9536 individuals), of which 15 studied people infected with 2009 influenza A H1N1 virus (H1N1pdm09). Data specific to mortality were of very low quality, based predominantly on observational studies, with inconsistent reporting of variables potentially associated with the outcomes of interest, differences between studies in the way in which they were conducted, and with the likelihood of potential confounding by indication. Reported doses of corticosteroids used were high, and indications for their use were not well reported. On meta‐analysis, corticosteroid therapy was associated with increased mortality (odds ratio (OR) 3.90, 95% confidence interval (CI) 2.31 to 6.60; I2 = 68%; 15 studies). A similar increase in risk of mortality was seen in a stratified analysis of studies reporting adjusted estimates (OR 2.23, 95% CI 1.54 to 3.24; I2 = 0%; 5 studies). An association between corticosteroid therapy and increased mortality was also seen on pooled analysis of six studies which reported adjusted hazard ratios (HRs) (HR 1.49, 95% CI 1.09 to 2.02; I2 = 69%). Increased odds of hospital‐acquired infection related to corticosteroid therapy were found on pooled analysis of seven studies (pooled OR 2.74, 95% CI 1.51 to 4.95; I2 = 90%); all were unadjusted estimates, and we graded the data as of very low certainty.
Authors' conclusions
We found one RCT of adjunctive corticosteroid therapy for treating people with community‐acquired pneumonia, but the number of people with laboratory‐confirmed influenza in the treatment and placebo arms was too small to draw conclusions regarding the effect of corticosteroids in this group, and we did not include it in our meta‐analyses of observational studies. The certainty of the available evidence from observational studies was very low, with confounding by indication a major potential concern. Although we found that adjunctive corticosteroid therapy is associated with increased mortality, this result should be interpreted with caution. In the context of clinical trials of adjunctive corticosteroid therapy in sepsis and pneumonia that report improved outcomes, including decreased mortality, more high‐quality research is needed (both RCTs and observational studies that adjust for confounding by indication). The currently available evidence is insufficient to determine the effectiveness of corticosteroids for people with influenza.


Lansbury, L., Rodrigo, C., Leonardi-Bee, J., Nguyen-Van-Tam, J., & Lim, W. S. (2019). Corticosteroids as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of influenza. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2019(2), Article CD010406.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 19, 2019
Online Publication Date Feb 24, 2019
Publication Date Feb 24, 2019
Deposit Date Feb 19, 2019
Publicly Available Date Feb 25, 2020
Journal Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Electronic ISSN 1469-493X
Publisher Cochrane Collaboration
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Volume 2019
Issue 2
Article Number CD010406
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Revised version of review published on 7 March 2016 (


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