• Vol. 32 No. 3, 324–334
  • 15 May 2003

The Use and Abuse of Steroids in Perinatal Medicine

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ABSTRACT

Corticosteroids are one of the most powerful drugs increasingly used in the perinatal and neonatal period. This review discusses the merits and demerits of antenatal as well as postnatal use of steroids. A single course of antenatal corticosteroids in women at risk of premature delivery is highly effective in reducing respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), intraventricular haemorrhage and neonatal mortality and also neurodevelopmental sequelae including cerebral palsy. However, there is less evidence to support the practice of multiple courses of corticosteroids, with some animal and retrospective human studies suggesting an association with neurological impairment and reduction in birth weight as well as lung weight. Postnatal systemic corticosteroids have shown benefits in reducing chronic lung disease and improving survival for infants. However, besides short-term adverse effects, the follow-up studies have raised concern that they may increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disability, particularly cerebral palsy in survivors. Systemic corticosteroids may have a role in infants who had repeated and prolonged intubations and those with pressor-resistant hypotension. Alternative strategies for prevention of chronic lung disease, such as inhaled steroids, methylprednisolone and hydrocortisone, may need further studies with larger sample sizes. Data from animal research have revealed that fetal glucocorticoid exposure may have a role in programming the individual to adult degenerative diseases. Based on the current evidence, it is recommended that women at risk of preterm delivery receive a single course of glucocorticoids. Randomised controlled trials are needed to establish the true effects of multiple courses of antenatal corticosteroids. More research is also needed to study the long-term neurodevelopmental outcome of both multiple courses of antenatal corticosteroids, as well as postnatal corticosteroid therapy.


Preterm birth, delivery prior to 37 weeks of gestational age, accounts for a major and disproportionate amount of infant and neonatal morbidity and mortality. Despite advances in medical technology, the prevalence of preterm birth in Singapore has increased, secondary to an increase in multiple gestations and obstetric interventions.

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