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

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Mortality rates

Aksoy et al8 established that, compared with placebo, low-dose steroids improved mortality rates in a subset of patients with acute exacerbations, specifically those with eosinophilic exacerbations. This study followed the 2013 Reduction in the Use of Corticosteroids in Exacerbated COPD (REDUCE) trial, which showed mortality rates were not lower with 14 days of low-dose prednisone treatment than with 5 days.9

Length of hospital stay

With regard to length of hospital stay, in 2011 Wang et al10 found no statistically significant difference between high- and low-dose steroid treatment.However, the REDUCE trial found that low-dose steroids shortened the median length of stay by 1 day compared with placebo.9

Hospital readmission rates

The REDUCE trial found no statistically significant difference in readmission rates when comparing 5 days of low-dose treatment vs 14 days.9 However, Aksoy et al8 found that readmission rates were significantly lower with low-dose treatment than with placebo.No study has yet examined readmission rates with high-dose vs low-dose steroid treatment.

What does the evidence tell us?

Low-dose oral glucocorticoid treatment shows definitive benefits in terms of lower mortality rates, shorter hospital length of stay, and lower readmission rates vs placebo in the treatment of acute exacerbations of COPD. Furthermore, a 14-day course is no better than 5 days in terms of mortality rates. And low-dose glucocorticoid treatment shows reduced mortality rates in addition to similar hospital length of stay when compared to high-dose glucocorticoid treatment.

Together, these findings lend credibility to the current GOLD recommendations. However, we have observed that in sharp contrast to the leading clinical guidelines, most patients hospitalized for acute exacerbations of COPD are still treated initially with high-dose IV corticosteroids. Why?

Obstacles that perpetuate the use of high-dose over low-dose treatment include lack of knowledge of glucocorticoid pharmacokinetics among clinicians, use of outdated order sets, and the reflex notion that more of a drug is more efficacious in its desired effect. In addition, administrative obstacles include using high-dose IV steroids to justify an inpatient stay or continued hospitalization.


To counter these obstacles, we propose standardization of inpatient treatment of acute exacerbations of COPD to include initial low-dose steroid treatment in accordance with the most recent GOLD guidelines.6 This would benefit the patient by reducing undesirable effects of high-dose steroids, and at the same time reduce the economic burden of managing COPD exacerbations. Considering the large number of hospitalizations for COPD exacerbation each year, hospitalists can play a large role in this effort by routinely incorporating the low-dose steroid recommendation into their clinical practice.

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