Corticosteroids for a Sore Throat?

One dose of a steroid can alleviate the pain—and has the potential to decrease unnecessary use of antibiotics.

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Consider prescribing a single dose of corticosteroids for patients with sore throat; this has been found to provide quick pain relief and resolution of symptoms.1

A: Based on a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in ambulatory care settings.1

A 28-year-old woman comes to your clinic because she’s had a severe sore throat and low-grade fever for the past two days. She has no associated cough. Examination reveals erythematous posterior oropharynx with exudate. A rapid strep test is negative. The patient says the sore throat is very painful and asks for medication to make it better. What should you prescribe?

Most sore throats—particularly in adults—are viral and self-limiting.2,3 Group A β-hemolytic Streptococcus infections account for just 10% of sore throats in adults and 15% to 30% in children.4 Yet US physicians have been found to prescribe antibiotics for more than half of patients who present with sore throat.5-7

Do patients want antibiotics, or simply pain relief?
Antibiotics produce only a modest reduction in symptoms of pharyngitis (fever and throat soreness), presumably in patients with bacterial infections, and increase the risk for adverse events.5,6 Research suggests that patients who request antibiotics for sore throat may be seeking primarily pain relief.8 Thus, a treatment that is more effective in alleviating symptoms of a sore throat would likely contribute to a decrease in unnecessary use of antibiotics.

A short course of corticosteroids has been used successfully and shown to be safe for conditions such as acute sinusitis, croup, and asthma.9-11 Could the anti-inflammatory effects of corticosteroids reduce pain in patients with sore throat, as well? A 2010 systematic review suggested that was the case.12 Cochrane reviewers recently took another look.1

Steroids bring speedier pain relief
This meta-analysis included eight RCTs (the same eight trials used in the systematic review9) that compared corticosteroids with placebo for the symptomatic treatment of exudative or severe sore throat.1 Sore throat was defined as clinical evidence of pharyngitis and/or tonsillitis or the clinical syndrome of painful throat and odynophagia.

Five studies were conducted in the United States, and one each in Canada, Turkey, and Israel. Five studies focused on adults (n = 413); the other three studied children (n = 393). Overall, 47% of participants had exudative sore throat, and 44% were positive for group A β-hemolytic Streptococcus.

In all eight RCTs, antibiotics were given to those in both the treatment and placebo groups. In addition, all participants were allowed to use traditional analgesia (either acetaminophen or NSAIDs). Corticosteroids (oral dexamethasone, oral prednisone, or intramuscular [IM] dexamethasone) were used as an adjunctive treatment in all the RCTs.

Primary outcomes varied between studies. Four of the eight RCTs included the proportion of patients with improvement or complete resolution of symptoms within 24 to 48 hours. Mean time to onset of pain relief was the primary outcome in five of the eight studies. Some of the secondary outcomes in the individual trials included relapse rates, adverse events, and days missed from school or work.

Overall, patients who received corticosteroids were three times more likely to report complete resolution of symptoms at 24 hours (relative risk = 3.2) and had a reduced mean time to onset of pain relief of about six hours. The number needed to treat to prevent one patient from experiencing pain at 24 hours was < 4.

Adverse events were reported in only one of the trials (n = 125): Five patients (three in the steroid group and two receiving placebo) were hospitalized for fluid rehydration, and three patients (one in the steroid group and two receiving placebo) developed peritonsillar abscess.12 Three RCTs did not find any significant difference in days missed from school or work, and four trials reported no difference in recurrence of symptoms. One of the trials found that 16% of the patients in the placebo group returned to seek additional care, while none in the steroid group did.13

Steroids haven’t been tested as standalone treatment

Steroids are not currently recommended for routine use to treat symptoms of sore throat. This Cochrane review found that patients with severe or exudative sore throat benefit from pain reduction with corticosteroids, used as an adjunct to antibiotics and other analgesics without increased risk for harm. Nonetheless, the use of steroids in this patient population would address a practical concern of those seeking symptom relief and has the potential to decrease unnecessary use of antibiotics.

Questions about effects on antibiotic use, heterogeneity

The studies in this meta-analysis did not assess whether the use of corticosteroids would reduce unnecessary use of antibiotics, so we cannot conclude that this would be the case. Because the effect was similar in all subgroups analyzed, however, it is reasonable to expect that reduced antibiotic use could be a positive effect. The main documented benefit was resolution of pain, an important patient-centered outcome that justifies consideration of treating painful pharyngitis with corticosteroids.

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