Sore throat is a common condition associated with a high rate of antibiotic prescriptions, despite limited evidence for the effectiveness of antibiotics. Corticosteroids may improve symptoms of sore throat by reducing inflammation of the upper respiratory tract.
To assess the clinical benefit and safety of corticosteroids for symptoms of sore throat in adults and children.
We searched The Cochrane Library, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2012, Issue 5) which includes the Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) Group's Specialised Register, the Database of Reviews of Effects and the NHS Health Economics Database, MEDLINE (1966 to November Week 4, 2012) and EMBASE (1974 to June 2012).
We included randomised controlled trials that compared steroids to either placebo or standard care in adults and children (older than three years of age) with sore throat. We excluded studies of hospitalised participants, those with infectious mononucleosis, sore throat following tonsillectomy or intubation, or peritonsillar abscess.
Data collection and analysis
Two review authors independently reviewed and selected trials from searches, assessed and rated study quality, and extracted relevant data.
We included eight trials involving 743 participants (369 children and 374 adults). All trials gave antibiotics to both placebo and corticosteroid groups; no trials assessed corticosteroids as standalone treatment for sore throat. In addition to any effect of antibiotics and analgesia, corticosteroids increased the likelihood of complete resolution of pain at 24 hours by more than three times (risk ratio (RR) 3.2, 95% confidence interval (CI) 2.0 to 5.1, P <0.001, I-2 statistic 44%) and at 48 hours by 1.7 times. Fewer than four people need to be treated to prevent one person continuing to experience pain at 24 hours. Corticosteroids also reduced the mean time to onset of pain relief and the mean time to complete resolution of pain by 6 and 14 hours, respectively, although significant heterogeneity was present. At 24 hours, pain (assessed by visual analogue scores) was reduced by an additional 14% by corticosteroids. No difference in rates of recurrence, relapse or adverse events were reported for participants taking corticosteroids compared to placebo, although reporting of adverse events was poor.
Oral or intramuscular corticosteroids, in addition to antibiotics, increase the likelihood of both resolution and improvement of pain in participants with sore throat. Further trials assessing corticosteroids in the absence of antibiotics and in children are warranted.