Early (up to seven days) systemic postnatal corticosteroids for preventing bronchopulmonary dysplasia in preterm infants

Review objective: To determine the relative benefits and harms of treatment with drugs that suppress inflammation, called corticosteroids, given to babies born too early during the first week after birth to prevent lung injury, known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia (sometimes also called chronic lung disease).

Background: Corticosteroids can reduce lung inflammation in newborn babies with bronchopulmonary dysplasia but may produce major adverse effects. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia is a major problem for newborn babies in neonatal intensive care units. Persistent inflammation of the lungs is the most likely cause. Corticosteroid drugs have been used to prevent or treat bronchopulmonary dysplasia through their strong anti-inflammatory effects.

Study characteristics: We reviewed all clinical trials in preterm babies in which corticosteroids had been given as a medication during the first week after birth, and from which data on the rate of bronchopulmonary dysplasia later in the newborn period were available.

Key results: This review of trials revealed that the benefits of giving systemic corticosteroids to infants starting up to seven days after birth may not outweigh the known adverse effects. However, a particular corticosteroid called hydrocortisone shows promise in improving short-term outcomes without adversely affecting long-term neurodevelopment. Beneficial effects of systemic corticosteroids overall included shorter time on the ventilator and less bronchopulmonary dysplasia, but adverse effects included higher blood pressure, bleeding from the stomach or bowel, perforation of the bowel, excessive glucose in the bloodstream, and increased risk of cerebral palsy at follow-up, particularly in those treated with dexamethasone - another type of corticosteroid. Early use of corticosteroids, especially dexamethasone, to treat or prevent bronchopulmonary dysplasia should be curtailed until additional research has been performed.

Quality of evidence: Overall, the quality of evidence supporting our conclusions was high.

Authors' conclusions: 

Benefits of early postnatal corticosteroid treatment (≤ 7 days), particularly dexamethasone, may not outweigh adverse effects associated with this treatment. Although early corticosteroid treatment facilitates extubation and reduces risk of bronchopulmonary dysplasia and patent ductus arteriosus, it causes short-term adverse effects including gastrointestinal bleeding, intestinal perforation, hyperglycaemia, hypertension, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and growth failure. Long-term follow-up studies report increased risk of abnormal findings on neurological examination and increased risk of cerebral palsy. However, the methodological quality of studies examining long-term outcomes is limited in some cases: Surviving children have been assessed predominantly before school age; no study has been sufficiently powered to detect important adverse long-term neurosensory outcomes; and no study has been designed with survival free of adverse long-term neurodevelopmental disability as the primary outcome. There is a compelling need for long-term follow-up and reporting of late outcomes, especially neurological and developmental outcomes, among surviving infants who participated in all randomised trials of early postnatal corticosteroid treatment. Hydrocortisone reduced rates of patent ductus arteriosus, of mortality, and of the combined outcome of mortality or bronchopulmonary dysplasia, without causing any obvious long-term harm. However, gastrointestinal perforation was more frequent in the hydrocortisone group. Longer-term follow-up into late childhood is vital for assessment of important effects or other effects that cannot be assessed in early childhood, such as effects of early hydrocortisone treatment on higher-order neurological functions, including cognitive function, academic performance, behaviour, mental health, and motor function. Further randomised controlled trials of early hydrocortisone should include longer-term survival free of neurodevelopmental disability as the main outcome.

Read the full abstract...

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia remains a major problem in neonatal intensive care units. Persistent inflammation in the lungs is the most likely underlying pathogenesis. Corticosteroids have been used to prevent or treat bronchopulmonary dysplasia because of their potent anti-inflammatory effects.


To examine the relative benefits and adverse effects of systemic postnatal corticosteroids commenced within the first seven days of life for preterm infants at risk of developing bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

Search strategy: 

For the 2017 update, we used the standard search strategy of Cochrane Neonatal to search the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2017, Issue 1); MEDLINE via PubMed (January 2013 to 21 February 2017); Embase (January 2013 to 21 February 2017); and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) (January 2013 to 21 February 2017). We also searched clinical trials databases, conference proceedings, and reference lists of retrieved articles for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-randomised trials.

Selection criteria: 

For this review, we selected RCTs examining systemic postnatal corticosteroid treatment within the first seven days of life (early) in high-risk preterm infants. Most studies evaluated the use of dexamethasone, but we also included studies that assessed hydrocortisone, even when used primarily for management of hypotension.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used the GRADE approach to assess the quality of evidence.

We extracted and analysed data regarding clinical outcomes that included mortality, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, death or bronchopulmonary dysplasia, failure to extubate, complications during primary hospitalisation, and long-term health outcomes.

Main results: 

We included 32 RCTs enrolling a total of 4395 participants. The overall risk of bias of included studies was probably low, as all were RCTs, and most trials used rigorous methods. Investigators reported significant benefits for the following outcomes overall: lower rates of failure to extubate, decreased risks of bronchopulmonary dysplasia both at 28 days of life and at 36 weeks' postmenstrual age, death or bronchopulmonary dysplasia at 28 days of life and at 36 weeks' postmenstrual age, patent ductus arteriosus, and retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), including severe ROP. Researchers found no significant differences in rates of neonatal or subsequent mortality; they noted that gastrointestinal bleeding and intestinal perforation were important adverse effects, and that risks of hyperglycaemia, hypertension, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and growth failure were increased. The 13 trials that reported late outcomes described several adverse neurological effects at follow-up examination, including cerebral palsy. However, study authors indicated that major neurosensory disability was not significantly increased, either overall in the eight studies for which this outcome could be determined, or in the two individual studies in which rates of cerebral palsy or abnormal neurological examination were significantly increased. Moreover, data show that rates of the combined outcomes of death or cerebral palsy, or of death or major neurosensory disability, were not significantly increased. Two-thirds of studies used dexamethasone (n = 21). Subgroup analyses by type of corticosteroid revealed that most of the beneficial and harmful effects of treatment were attributable to dexamethasone. However, as with dexamethasone, hydrocortisone was associated with reduced rates of patent ductus arteriosus, mortality, and the combined outcome of mortality or chronic lung disease, but with increased occurrence of intestinal perforation. Results showed that hydrocortisone was not associated with obvious longer-term problems.

Use of the GRADE approach revealed that the quality of evidence was high for the major outcomes considered, but review authors downgraded quality one level for several outcomes (mortality at latest age, bronchopulmonary dysplasia at 36 weeks, and death or bronchopulmonary dysplasia at 36 weeks) because of weak evidence of publication bias or moderate heterogeneity (death or cerebral palsy).