Low-dose steroids for acute exacerbations of COPD in a non-ICU setting: Worth consideration

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Despite guidelines recommending low-dose oral glucocorticoids over high-dose intravenous (IV) glucocorticoids for inpatient management of acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), we have observed that most patients still receive high-dose IV therapy before being transitioned to low-dose oral therapy at discharge. Clinical inertia undoubtedly plays a significant role in the slow adoption of new recommendations, but in this era of evidence-based practice, the unfortunate lack of data supporting low over high steroid doses for acute exacerbations of COPD also contributes to hesitancy of physicians.


COPD is one of the most common pulmonary conditions managed by hospitalists today, and by the year 2030, it is predicted to become the third leading cause of death worldwide.1

COPD is also a significant economic burden, costing $50 billion to manage in the United States, most of that from the cost of lengthy hospital stays.2 COPD patients have 1 to 2 exacerbations per year.3 Bacterial and viral infections are responsible for most exacerbations, and 15% to 20% are from air pollution and other environmental causes of airway inflammation.3


Glucocorticoids are the gold standard for treatment of acute exacerbations of COPD. It is well-documented that compared with placebo, glucocorticoids reduce mortality risk, length of hospital stay, and exacerbation recurrence after 1 month.4 And while high-dose IV steroid therapy has been the standard approach, oral administration has been found to be noninferior to IV administration with regard to treatment and length of hospital stay.5

While adverse effects are more common at higher doses, the optimal dose and duration of systemic glucocorticoid therapy for acute exacerbations of COPD are still largely at the discretion of the physician. The 2019 report of the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) recommends low doses (40 mg) for no more than 5 to 7 days for exacerbations, based on reports that showed no worse outcomes with low-dose oral than with high-dose IV therapy.6,7 (In the 2010 study by Lindenauer et al,7 92% of nearly 80,000 patients received high-dose IV steroids, reflecting standard practice at that time.) However, the GOLD guidelines do not address mortality rates, length of stay, or readmission rates for either approach, as they are devised to direct treatment in patients with stable mild to advanced COPD, not exacerbations.

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