BACKGROUND: 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. This review is an update to our review published in 2012.
OBJECTIVES: To assess the clinical benefit and safety of corticosteroids in reducing the symptoms of sore throat in adults and children.
SEARCH METHODS: We searched CENTRAL (Issue 4, 2019), MEDLINE (1966 to 14 May 2019), Embase (1974 to 14 May 2019), the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE, 2002 to 2015), and the NHS Economic Evaluation Database (inception to 2015). We also searched the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO ICTRP) and ClinicalTrials.gov.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared steroids to either placebo or standard care in adults and children (aged over three years) with sore throat. We excluded studies of hospitalised participants, those with infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever), sore throat following tonsillectomy or intubation, or peritonsillar abscess.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane.
MAIN RESULTS: We included one new RCT in this update, for a total of nine trials involving 1319 participants (369 children and 950 adults). In eight trials, participants in both corticosteroid and placebo groups received antibiotics; one trial offered delayed prescription of antibiotics based on clinical assessment. Only two trials reported funding sources (government and a university foundation). In addition to any effect of antibiotics and analgesia, corticosteroids increased the likelihood of complete resolution of pain at 24 hours by 2.40 times (risk ratio (RR) 2.4, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.29 to 4.47; P = 0.006; I² = 67%; high-certainty evidence) and at 48 hours by 1.5 times (RR 1.50, 95% CI 1.27 to 1.76; P < 0.001; I² = 0%; high-certainty evidence). Five 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 11.6 hours, respectively, although significant heterogeneity was present (moderate-certainty evidence). At 24 hours, pain (assessed by visual analogue scales) was reduced by an additional 10.6% by corticosteroids (moderate-certainty evidence). No differences were reported in recurrence/relapse rates, days missed from work or school, or adverse events for participants taking corticosteroids compared to placebo. However, the reporting of adverse events was poor, and only two trials included children or reported days missed from work or school. The included studies were assessed as moderate quality evidence, but the small number of included studies has the potential to increase the uncertainty, particularly in terms of applying these results to children.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Oral or intramuscular corticosteroids, in addition to antibiotics, moderately increased the likelihood of both resolution and improvement of pain in participants with sore throat. Given the limited benefit, further research into the harms and benefits of short courses of steroids is needed to permit informed decision-making.