Corticosteroid Adverse Effects

Article Author:
Muhammad Yasir
Article Author (Archived):
Gurpoonam Jatana
Article Editor:
Sidharth Sonthalia
1/21/2020 7:25:49 PM
PubMed Link:
Corticosteroid Adverse Effects


Corticosteroids are hormone mediators produced by the cortex of adrenal glands that are further categorized into glucocorticoids (major glucocorticoid produced by the body is cortisol), mineralocorticoids (major mineralocorticoid produced in the body is aldosterone), and androgenic sex hormones.

Glucocorticoids (GCs) are a group of drugs structurally and pharmacologically similar to the endogenous hormone cortisol with various functions like anti-inflammatory, immunosuppressive, anti-proliferative and vaso-constrictive effects. So, their actions are used medically for the treatment of various conditions indicated below. The list of indications of CS is extremely long. We have categorized and mentioned the most important and broad-spectrum indication below

As a Replacement Therapy

  • Adrenocortical insufficiency (Addison's disease)
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)

Systemic Symptomatic Treatment


  • Allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock (vasoconstrictive effects)
  • Asthma (bronchodilatory effects)
  • Antiemetic treatment, for example, nausea due to chemotherapy)
  • Toxic pulmonary edema
  • Acute exacerbation of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, vitiligo, uveitis, rheumatoid arthritis, SLE etc.
  • Acute exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • Cerebral edema: Recommended only in specific conditions like elevated intracranial pressure due to the neoplasm or central nervous system (CNS) infection; generally avoided in moderate to severe brain injury


  • Chronic, inflammatory diseases (asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, inflammatory bowel disease)
  • Rheumatic diseases (sarcoidosis, Sjogren syndrome, SLE)
  • Graves' ophthalmopathy
  • Local symptomatic treatment: anterior uveitis, steroid-responsive dermatoses (SRD), tenosynovitis, and osteoarthritis or juvenile idiopathic arthritis


  • Organ transplant (to prevent rejection due to their immunosuppressive action) 
  • Preterm delivery (to allow fetal lung maturity)

Mineralocorticoids are primarily involved in the regulation of electrolyte and water balance by modulating ion transport in the epithelial cells of the collecting ducts of the kidney. The use of mineralocorticoid drugs in limited to their replacement therapy in acute adrenal crisis and Addison disease. 

Due to these number of roles played by corticosteroids in the human body, it is evident that they are widely used in medical practice for the treatment of various diseases and due to this, their side-effects, in turn, have become another, rather more significant medical issue that requires special attention.

Mechanism of Action

Glucocorticoids have widespread endocrine and non-endocrine effects via genomic/indirect and non-genomic/direct effects over the body. The direct effects of glucocorticoids are acute (within minutes), usually occur at high doses and are as follows:

  • Decreased vasodilation and decreased capillary permeability
  • Decreased Leukocyte migration to inflammatory foci

Both are anti-inflammatory effects.

The indirect effects of glucocorticoids are through their interaction with their cytoplasmic glucocorticoid receptors in the cell. This interaction makes a complex that translocates inside the nucleus and interacts with glucocorticoid responsive elements (GREs) making alterations in gene expressions at various levels in the body, but it needs longer time (hours or days). These effects are as follows:

Anti-Inflammatory and Immunosuppressive Effect

  • Inhibition of neutrophil apoptosis and demargination of neutrophils from the marginal pool of blood vessels causing neutrophilic leukocytosis
  • Promotion of apoptosis in eosinophils, monocytes, and lymphocytes 
  • Inhibition of phospholipase A2, which decreases the production of arachidonic acid derivatives.
  • Inhibition of transcription factors (e.g., NF-Kappa B), which decrease the expression of pro-inflammatory genes
  • promotion of anti-inflammatory genes (e.g., interleukin-10), which increase the expression of anti-inflammatory genes

Antiproliferative Effects

Glucocorticoids exert this effect by triggering cell apoptosis and inhibiting fibroblast proliferation.

Mineralocorticoid Properties

Glucocorticoids bind to mineralocorticoid receptors (MRs) and produce their mineralocorticoid effect (i.e., increasing sodium and decreasing potassium) but only when used at the high dose and for the extended period.

It is important to note that the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects of CS are dose-dependent, e.g. oral prednisolone 20 mg given for a short duration (1-2 weeks) primarily provides an anti-inflammatory effect, whereas 40-60 mg dose assumes immunosuppressive activity.


Natural and synthetic glucocorticoids are used in both endocrine and non-endocrine disorders. Pharmacologic (usually supraphysiologic) doses of glucocorticoids are used to treat patients with inflammatory, allergic, and immunological disorders. Due to the excessive side effects of corticosteroids, every effort should be made to use these drugs locally. For example, rectal enemas are preferred for inflammatory bowel disease whenever possible, over oral or intravenous (IV), systemic steroid use. The following are the most frequent ways available for glucocorticoid administration.

Parenteral Therapy

Parenteral administration of high doses may be warranted in emergencies, such as septic shock, COPD exacerbation, and severe acute asthma.

Oral Administration

Oral preparations are usually used for chronic therapy. Pharmacokinetics vary for different CS molecules.  This preparation is used mostly in chronic conditions like asthma, COPD, allergic conditions of skin, kerato-conjunctivitis, rheumatoid arthritis, immune-mediated systemic diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), lymphoma, leukemia, polymyositis, multiple sclerosis, organ transplantation, nephrotic syndrome, chronic hepatitis (flare-ups), cerebral edema, IgG4-related disease, and prostate cancer.

Non-Systemic/Local Administration

This minimizes systemic side-effects and provides a maximal local response. Examples are intra-articular injections for joint inflammation, inhalational for asthma, topical for dermatological problems, ocular drops for eye conditions, intra-nasal for seasonal rhinitis among others. The intra-articular injections with crystal suspension of hydrocortisone or triamcinolone have the benefit of long-lasting effect and decrease the frequent need to puncture the joints.

Intramuscular (IM) administration of glucocorticoids can cause severe local muscle atrophy and due to depot effect, it can disturb the circadian rhythms of endogenous glucocorticoids secretions. Thus, great caution should be exercised while giving CS by IM route. IM triamcinolone acetonide for specific inflammatory disorders and IM injection of betamethasone to a pregnant mother less than 37 weeks of gestation to stimulate fetal lung maturity are two major uses of IM CS.

Adverse Effects

Factors Affecting the Adverse Effects of Corticosteroid Use

Adverse effects depend upon dose, duration of use, route of administration, the bioavailability of individual drugs, and mechanism of action of individual corticosteroids.

A linear and threshold pattern of dose-related adverse effects have been described for different adverse effects. A "linear" pattern is one in which with increasing dose, the incidence of certain adverse effects is increased the, e.g., the appearance of ecchymosis, leg edema, mycosis, parchment-like skin, shortness of breath, and sleep disturbance. A "threshold" pattern, describes an elevated frequency of events beyond a certain threshold value, for example, at doses of prednisone greater than 7.5 mg/day there is an increased frequency of glaucoma, depression, and elevated blood pressure.

Another important factor is the underlying disease condition for which corticosteroids are being administered. The severity and nature of that disease will also influence the appearance of side-effects. Also, other co-morbid conditions (e.g., diabetes), old age, nutritional status of patients will also affect the occurrence and magnitude of side-effects.


It is usually at “supra-physiologic” doses of corticosteroid administration that multiple adverse effects of corticosteroids are seen, ranging from mild suppression of hypothalamic-pituitary axis to severe, life-threatening infections.[1]

Dermatological changes: Skin thinning, purpura, acne, mild hirsutism, facial erythema, and striae. Purpura generally affects the sun-exposed areas of the dorsum of the hands and forearms, as well as the sides of the neck, face, and lower legs. Red striae generally appear on the thighs, buttocks, shoulders, and abdomen. Impairment of wound healing is another common and potentially serious side effect of systemic glucocorticoid use. Corticosteroids interfere with the natural wound-healing process by inhibiting leukocyte and macrophage infiltration, decreasing collagen synthesis and wound maturation, and reducing keratinocyte growth factor expression after skin injury.

Cushing syndrome, cushingoid features and weight gain: The development of cushingoid features (redistribution of body fat with truncal obesity, buffalo hump, and moon face) and weight gain are dose and duration-dependent and can develop early. Cushingoid features showed a linear increase in frequency with dose. Glucocorticoid therapy is the most common cause of Cushing syndrome. The clinical presentation in the pediatric population is similar to that in adults and includes truncal obesity, skin changes, and hypertension. In children, growth deceleration is also observed.

Ophthalmologic: The risk of both cataracts and glaucoma (open-angle) is increased in patients on glucocorticoids and is dose-dependent in a linear fashion. This form of glaucoma occurs most commonly in patients using eye drops. Glaucoma (increase in intraocular pressure) is often painless and leads to visual field loss, optic disc cupping, and optic nerve atrophy. Once systemic therapy is discontinued, the elevation in intraocular pressure usually resolves within a few weeks, but the damage to the optic nerve is often permanent. A rare adverse effect of systemic, local, or even topical use of glucocorticoids is central serous chorioretinopathy. This leads to the formation of subretinal fluid in the macular region which leads to separation of the retina from its underlying photoreceptors. This manifests as central visual blur and reduced visual acuity.[2][3]

Cardiovascular: Glucocorticoid use has been associated with a variety of adverse cardiovascular effects including fluid retention, premature atherosclerotic disease (increased risk of heart attack and stroke) and arrhythmias. Cardiovascular disease risk is dose-dependent.[4]

Gastrointestinal (GI): Glucocorticoids increase the risk for adverse GI effects, such as gastritis, gastric ulcer formation, and GI  bleeding.[5] The use of NSAIDs and glucocorticoids is associated with a 4-fold increased risk of a GI adverse effect compared with non-use of either drug. Other complications associated with glucocorticoid use include visceral perforation and hepatic steatosis (fatty liver) that can rarely lead to systemic fat embolism or cirrhosis.

Bone and Muscle: This includes osteoporosis, osteonecrosis, increased risk of fractures, muscle weakness and myopathy. Corticosteroids stimulate osteoclastic activity initially (first 6 to 12 months of therapy), followed by a decrease in bone formation by suppressing osteoblastic activity in the bone marrow, decreasing osteoblast function and lifespan, and promoting the apoptosis of osteoblasts and osteocytes. Myopathy is a direct result of muscle breakdown and occurs in both upper and lower limbs. It is reversible and painless. “Critical illness myopathy” may also develop in patients admitted in the intensive care unit (ICU) requiring large doses of IV glucocorticoids and neuromuscular blocking agents. It is characterized by severe, diffuse proximal and distal weakness that develops over several days. Although it is usually reversible, critical illness myopathy can lead to prolonged ICU admissions, increased length of hospital stays, severe necrotizing myopathy, and increased mortality.

Neuropsychiatric: Patients receiving glucocorticoids often experience an improved sense of well-being within several days of starting the medications; mild euphoria or anxiety may also be seen. Hypomanic reactions and activated states are more common early in the therapy than depression, but the prevalence of depression is greater in patients on more longstanding therapy. Psychosis can occur but does so almost exclusively at doses of prednisone above 20 mg per day given for a prolonged period. Disturbances in sleep are reported, especially with split doses that may interfere with the normal pattern of diurnal cortisol production. Akathisia (motor restlessness) is a common glucocorticoid side effect. The risk of developing a given neuropsychiatric disorder following Glucocorticoids therapy may be increased among patients with a history of that condition. Rare cases of pseudotumor cerebri have also been associated with glucocorticoid use.[6] 

The neuropsychiatric adverse effects of corticosteroid therapy has specifically been documented in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) receiving dexamethasone or prednisone for the induction and maintenance of treatment [7]. The risk is higher in preschool-age children, and the symptoms are typically encountered during the first week of corticosteroid therapy. [8][9] Corticosteroid-induced acute neuropsychiatric impairment may present with a wide variety of behavioral symptoms including euphoria, aggression, insomnia, mood fluctuations, depression, manic behavior, and even frank psychosis. [10]. Although these psychiatric disturbances tend to wear off with time on cessation of corticosteroid therapy, a small minority of the patients may experience persistent symptoms even after discontinuation of the drug.[11]

Metabolic and endocrine: Systemic glucocorticoids cause a dose-dependent, usually mild, increase in fasting glucose levels and a greater increase in postprandial values in patients without preexisting diabetes mellitus, but the development of de novo diabetes in a patient with initially normal glucose tolerance is uncommon. Risk factors for new-onset hyperglycemia during glucocorticoid therapy are thought to be the same as those for other patients. However, patients with diabetes mellitus or glucose intolerance exhibit higher blood glucose levels while taking glucocorticoids, leading to increased difficulty with glycemic control.[12]

Immune system: Systemic glucocorticoids have many effects upon innate and acquired immunity that predispose to infection, resulting in a linear increase in the risk of infection, especially with common bacterial, viral, and fungal pathogens. In addition, patients taking glucocorticoids may not manifest signs and symptoms of infection as clearly, due to the inhibition of cytokine release and the associated reduction in inflammatory and febrile responses. This can impair the early recognition of infection.

Hematologic effects: Pharmacologic doses of glucocorticoids often result in an increased white blood cell count (leukocytosis) that is due primarily to an increase in neutrophils (neutrophilia). This phenomenon is due to a decreased proportion of neutrophils that are adhering to the endothelium (Marginal pool).

Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis suppression: Administration of Glucocorticoids can suppress the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis decreasing corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary gland and endogenous cortisol. Prolonged ACTH suppression cause atrophy of adrenal glands and abrupt cessation or rapid withdrawal of Glucocorticoids in such patients may cause symptoms of adrenal insufficiency. The clinical presentation of adrenal suppression is variable. Many of the signs and symptoms are non-specific and can be mistaken for symptoms of intercurrent illness or the underlying condition that is being treated (weakness/fatigue, malaise, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache usually in the morning, fever, anorexia/weight loss, myalgia, arthralgia, psychiatric symptoms, poor growth and weight gain in children). Adrenal suppression is the most common cause of adrenal insufficiency in children.

Adrenal insufficiency is associated with higher mortality in the pediatric population. In adults, the symptoms of adrenal suppression are non-specific; therefore, the condition may go unrecognized until exposure to physiological stress (illness, surgery or injury), results in an adrenal crisis. Children with adrenal crisis secondary to adrenal suppression may present with hypotension, shock, decreased consciousness, lethargy, unexplained hypoglycemia, seizures, and even death.

Growth impairment: The impairment of growth in young children and delay in puberty is commonly seen in children receiving glucocorticoids for chronic illnesses like nephrotic syndrome and asthma. The effect is most pronounced with daily therapy, and less marked with an alternate-day regimen. This can also occur with inhaled Glucocorticoids. It is important to note that although growth impairment can be an independent adverse effect of corticosteroid therapy, it can also be a sign of adrenal suppression.


General contraindications include hypersensitivity.


  • Systemic fungal infections
  • Intrathecal administration
  • Cerebral malaria 
  • Concomitant live or live attenuated virus vaccination (if glucocorticoids are used in immunosuppressive doses)
  • Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (IM administration)
  • Use in premature infants (formulations containing benzyl alcohol)


  • Dermatological: Bacterial, viral or fungal infection of the mouth or throat (triamcinolone)
  • Ophthalmic: Acute untreated purulent ocular infections, Fungal or mycobacterial ocular infections, viral conjunctivitis, or keratitis.

Live virus vaccines may be administered to patients who have taken:

  • Prednisone or its equivalent in doses of less than 20 mg per day for 14 days or less
  • Glucocorticoids used for long-term physiologic replacement
  • Glucocorticoids administered topically, by aerosol, or by intra-articular or bursal injection, provided that there is no clinical or laboratory evidence of immunosuppression.


Baseline Assessment and Monitoring

Preexisting conditions that should be assessed for and treated when glucocorticoids are to be instituted include

  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Poorly controlled hypertension
  • Heart failure and peripheral edema
  • Cataract or glaucoma
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Presence of infection
  • Low bone density or osteoporosis
  • Psychiatric illness

Before initiating long-term systemic glucocorticoid therapy, a thorough history and physical examination should be performed to assess for risk factors or pre-existing conditions that may potentially be exacerbated by glucocorticoid therapy, such as above.[13]

Baseline measures of body weight, height, blood pressure, BMD (bone mineral density) via DEXA scan, and ophthalmological examination should be obtained along with laboratory assessments that include a complete blood count (CBC), blood glucose values (Fasting blood sugar, 2-hour OGTT, Hb1Ac), and lipid profile (LDL-C, HDL-C, TC, non-HDL-C, TG). In children, nutritional and pubertal status should also be examined.[14]

Subsequent Monitoring

Assessment of Bone Health

The bone health in adults should be assessed as followed: 

  • Bone mineral density (BMD) measurement via DEXA scan 1-year after the initiation of glucocorticoid therapy (If BMD stable: assessed every 2 to 3 years, If decreased: assess annually),
  • Lateral spine x-ray in adults 65 years of age or older to examine for vertebral fractures
  • Use FRAX risk assessment tool(a diagnostic tool that incorporates clinical factors and bone mineral density at the femoral neck) to estimate 10-year fracture risk[15]
  • Annual height measurement (for vertebral compression fractures)
  • Questionnaire for incident fragility fracture
  • Consider referral to endocrinologist/rheumatologist if fracture risk is high and/or BMD is decreasing.

Assessment of Hypothalamic: Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Function

HPA axis should be assessed if the patient has received systemic corticosteroids for more than 2 consecutive weeks or more than 3 cumulative weeks in the last 6 months or Patient has persistent symptoms of adrenal suppression. Screening is done by Measuring early morning salivary cortisol after tapering off dose of cortisol. If morning cortisol is normal, but the patient has symptoms of adrenal suppression, perform a low-dose ACTH stimulation test to confirm the diagnosis. Consider endocrinology referral for confirmation of diagnosis.

Assessment of Growth (Children and Adolescents)

Growth in children and adolescents on chronic glucocorticoid therapy is monitored every 6 months and plotted on a growth curve. 

Assessment of Dyslipidemia and Cardiovascular Risk (Adults)

Order a lipid profile 1 month after Glucocorticoids initiation, then every 6 to 12 months and assess glycemic control by screening for classic symptoms at every visit: polyuria, polydipsia, weight loss. Monitor glucose parameters for at least 48 hours after Glucocorticoids initiation, then every 3 to 6 months for the first year and annually afterward. In children, perform annual OGTT (oral glucose tolerance test) if the child is obese or has multiple risk factors for diabetes.

Assessment of Ophthalmological Complications

An ophthalmological examination is done annually by an ophthalmologist, but earlier examination for those with symptoms of cataracts and early referral for intra-ocular pressure assessment should be ensured if there is personal or family history of open-angle glaucoma, diabetes mellitus, high myopia or some connective tissue disease, particularly rheumatoid arthritis.

Prevention of Side-Effects

The adverse effects of glucocorticoids can be limited by taking the following steps:

  • Use of the lowest dose of glucocorticoids for the shortest period needed to achieve the treatment goals
  • Management of preexisting comorbid conditions
  • Monitoring of patients under treatment for adverse effects

Patients who also require concomitant treatment with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or anticoagulants may require prophylaxis to prevent gastro-duodenal toxicity (with PPIs or misoprostol).


Patients who require an extended course of glucocorticoids should receive appropriate immunizations before the institution of therapy. Sometimes the use of prophylaxis for an opportunistic infection with Pneumocystis jirovecii pneumonia (PCP) is also recommended. Symptoms of and/or exposure to serious infections should also be assessed as corticosteroids are contraindicated in patients with untreated systemic infections. Concomitant use of other medications should also be assessed before initiating therapy as significant drug interactions have been noted between glucocorticoids and several drug classes.

Osteoporosis prevention can be ensured right at the start of therapy with adequate dietary calcium (1000 to 1200 mg per day) and vitamin D intake (800 IU per day) in high-risk men (T-score on baseline DEXA is between -1 and -2.5) and post-menopausal women. Bisphosphonates can be started if T-score is less than -2.5 on baseline DEXA when glucocorticoid therapy is started to prevent bone complications.[16]

Withdrawal of Corticosteroid Therapy

Abrupt cessation of chronic glucocorticoid therapy can be dangerous as there is a risk of HPA axis suppression. So, withdrawal of glucocorticoid therapy needs tapering over the period of certain time.  In general, patients who are given acute corticosteroid therapy for less than 14 to 21 days do not develop HPA axis suppression. Therefore, treatment can be suspended with no need for any reduction regime. If the therapy has been continued for greater than 3 weeks, tapering is needed (e.g., over 2 months) but there is no universally accepted optimal regimen.[17]


Neuropsychiatric adverse effects: Immediate cessation of the drug on the appearance of symptoms is the first step. Although many drugs including antipsychotics, antidepressants, benzodiazepines and hydrocortisone have been tried with variable success, currently there is no consensus on the ideal therpaeutic remedy to stop and reverse the corticosteroid-induced neuropsychiatric adverse effects in adults or children. The use of the aforementioned medications is further limited by their own specific adverse effects. [10][11] The outcome of limited interventional trials have shown a decrease in corticosteroid-induced neuropsychiatric symptoms with chlorpromazine and lorazepam albeit at the cost of drowsiness, orthostatic hypotension, and paradoxical agitation. [18] Physiologic doses of hydrocortisone have been documented to improve mild to moderate psychosocial disturbances and insomnia experienced by children who developed severe behavioural problems with dexamethasone-based treatment regime administered to treat ALL. [19] Recently, oral potassium chloride (KCl) administered at a median dose of 0.5 mEq/kg/ day in two divided doses per day was reported to be moderately effective in reducing corticosteroid-induced psychiatric events in the majority of children with ALL. No adverse effects were found with oral KCl supplementation. [20]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Corticosteroids are widely used medication to manage many acute and chronic inflammatory disorders. These side effects affect many organ systems and hence, all healthcare workers including nurses and pharmacist need to be aware of them. While short-term use of corticosteroids is associated with mild side effects, long-term use can result in hypertension, peptic ulcer disease, ocular damage, neuropsychiatric effects, hematologic and musculoskeletal effects. To prevent irreversible damage, these patients need close monitoring and follow up. Children are particularly vulnerable to the side effects of corticosteroids. Close communication with other health professionals is necessary to ensure that the patient is not left unmonitored. Treatment with corticosteroids should be tapered as soon there is a clinical improvement. Finally, patients should be educated about the side effects of these agents and when to return for followup.[21]


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