Huh?...A recent study found that short-term use (less than 30 days) of commonly prescribed corticosteroid medications are linked to some nasty side-effects: an increase in rates of sepsis, venous thromboembolism, and fractures. The most common reasons for the prescriptions were for upper respiratory tract infections, spinal conditions, bronchitis, and allergies. The study looked at 1.5 milliion patients, and found that the most common prescriptions written for oral corticosteroids was a six day methylprednisolone “dosepak” (about 47% of prescriptions). Note that while this was an "observational" study (so doesn't prove corticosteroid medication caused the effects), it still is concerning. One should always keep in mind that all medications have side effects, some bigger and some smaller.
Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that have been used to treat a variety of diseases for over seven decades. Long term use of corticosteroids is generally avoided because of the risks of serious complications (such as infection, venous thromboembolism, fractures, as well as chronic diseases). However, side-effects of short-term use have been unclear- which is why they are so frequently prescribed (about 1 in 5 Americans or 21% of the people in this study). This is why this study was needed. From Medical Xpress:
Common drugs, uncommon risks? Higher rate of serious problems after short-term steroid use
Millions of times a year, Americans get prescriptions for a week's worth of steroid pills, hoping to ease a backache or quell a nagging cough or allergy symptoms. But a new study suggests that they and their doctors might want to pay a bit more attention to the potential side effects of this medication. People taking the pills were more likely to break a bone, have a potentially dangerous blood clot or suffer a life-threatening bout of sepsis in the months after their treatment, compared with similar adults who didn't use corticosteroids, researchers from the University of Michigan report in a new paper in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Though only a small percentage of both groups went to the hospital for these serious health threats, the higher rates seen among people who took steroids for even a few days are cause for caution and even concern, the researchers say. The study used data from 1.5 million non-elderly American adults with private insurance. One in 5 of them filled a short-term prescription for oral corticosteroids such as prednisone sometime in the three-year study period. While the rates of the serious events were highest in the first 30 days after a prescription, they stayed elevated even three months later.
Using anonymous insurance claims data that IHPI purchased for use by U-M health care researchers, they found that half of the people who received oral steroids had gotten them for just six diagnoses, related to back pain, allergies or respiratory tract infections including bronchitis. Nearly half received a six-day prepackaged methylprednisolone "dosepak," which tapers the dose of steroids from highest to lowest.
Dr. Waljee and his colleagues found higher rates of sepsis, venous thromboembolism (VTE) and fractures among short-term steroid users using multiple different statistical approaches to ensure their findings were as robust as possible....The consistent findings across the three approaches are important given the frequent use of these drugs and potential implications for patients. Waljee notes that the reason for this broad effect of steroids on complications may have its roots in how the drugs work: they mimic hormones produced by the body, to reduce inflammation but this can also induce changes that put patients at additional risk of serious events.
In the meantime, based on the new results, he advises patients and prescribers to use the smallest amount of corticosteroids possible based on the condition being treated. "If there are alternatives to steroids, we should be use those when possible," he says. "Steroids may work faster, but they aren't as risk-free as you might think." [Original study.]