The Risks of Using Steroids for Respiratory Infections

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In an interview, Dr. Dvorin said that although steroids may make people euphoric, they can also “make some people feel pretty bad by causing anxiety, jitteriness and manic-like behavior.” In people with pre-existing psychosis, short-term steroid shots can trigger a psychotic episode, Dr. McCoul said.

Drs. Dvorin and Ebell wrote, “Physicians might assume that short-term steroids are harmless and free from the widely known long-term effects of steroids. However, even short courses of systemic corticosteroids are associated with many possible adverse effects.” (“Systemic” refers to both oral and injected steroids, as opposed to topical uses on the skin.)

Furthermore, there is no credible evidence to justify such risks when treating a condition like a cold or sinus infection, the Michigan doctors noted. When any treatment is prescribed, it’s the practitioner’s job to first weigh its expected benefits against possible risks. However, Drs. Wallace and Waljee reported that “corticosteroid bursts are frequently prescribed for self-limited conditions, where evidence of benefit is lacking.” Leading the list of such inappropriate uses of steroids are acute respiratory tract infections that usually resolve without specific treatment within a week or two.

As with antibiotics and opiates, short-term use of injected or oral steroids have “well-defined indications but can cause net harm when used — as they frequently are — when evidence of benefit is low,” they concluded.

In Louisiana, where Dr. McCoul practices, steroid shots for upper respiratory infections are shockingly common, he said. “Patients may go to urgent care five or six times a year to get a steroid shot.” Although the drugs themselves are not addictive, getting these shots “is like a behavioral addiction,” he said.

“It’s a pervasive practice for which there’s practically zero evidence of benefit,” Dr. McCoul added. “It’s important for the public to understand that most upper respiratory infections are self-limited; no intervention is required. They resolve on their own if you don’t seek care.”

However, when patients do go to the doctor, they expect something to happen, and doctors are often happy to oblige. They are reimbursed by insurance if they administer an injection but not if they hand patients a prescription for oral steroids.

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