BACKGROUND: Although the need for corticosteroids in acute severe asthma is well established the appropriate dose is not known. METHODS: The response to intravenous hydrocortisone 50 mg (low dose), 100 mg (medium dose), and 500 mg (high dose), administered every six hours for 48 hours and followed by oral prednisone, was compared in patients with acute asthma in a double blind randomised study. After initial emergency treatment with bronchodilators subjects received oral theophylline or intravenous aminophylline and nebulised salbutamol four hourly. Patients were given low, medium, or high doses of intravenous hydrocortisone and then 20, 40, or 60 mg/day respectively of oral prednisone with a reducing regimen over the following 12 days. Beclomethasone dipropionate, 400 micrograms twice daily by metered dose inhaler, was also started. Peak expiratory flow (PEF), forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), and visual analogue dyspnoea scores (VAS) were recorded daily in hospital and PEF and VAS twice daily after discharge for a total of 12 days. RESULTS: The 66 subjects (40 female) who completed the study had a mean (SD) age of 31(14) years. On presentation mean (SD) FEV1% predicted in the low (n = 22), medium (n = 20), and high dose (n = 24) groups was 17(13), 19(12), and 19(11) and after emergency bronchodilator treatment 32(20), 30(12), and 36(13). After 24 hours of treatment the respective post-bronchodilator FEV1% predicted values were 62(22), 62(23), and 65(28) compared with 71(24), 69(22), and 71(24) after 48 hours. No significant difference between the groups was detected. PEF and VAS improved with treatment over the 12 days but was not influenced by steroid dose. CONCLUSIONS: Hydrocortisone 50 mg intravenously four times a day for two days followed by low dose oral prednisone is as effective in resolving acute severe asthma as 200 or 500 mg of hydrocortisone followed by higher doses of prednisone.
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