Serial changes in plasma total cortisol, Plasma free cortisol, and tissue cortisol activity in patients with septic shock: An observational study

Jeremy Cohen*, Melissa Lassig Smith, Renae V. Deans, Carel J. Pretorius, Jacobus P.J. Ungerer, Terrence Tan, Mark Jones, Bala Venkatesh

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Published data on adrenocortical function in septic shock have enrolled patients at various stages of critical illness and predominantly used plasma total cortisol, with minimal information on serial changes. Moreover, plasma free cortisol and tissue corticosteroid activity may not be strongly associated; however, few published data exist. The aim of this prospective observational study was to investigate serial changes in plasma total and free cortisol and tissue cortisol activity in septic shock. Twenty-nine adult patients admitted with septic shock to a tertiary-level intensive care unit were enrolled. A low-dose corticotropin test was performed on day 1. Plasma total and free cortisol, cortisone, transcortin, and urinary free cortisol and cortisone were analyzed on days 1 to 5, 7, and 10. Urinary and plasma cortisol-cortisone ratios (F:E ratio) were calculated as indices of 11-β hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 2 and global 11-β hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase activity, respectively. Baseline total and free plasma cortisol values from 10 healthy control subjects were obtained for comparative analysis. Baseline plasma total and free cortisol levels were significantly higher than controls (457.8 ± 193 vs. 252 ± 66 nmol/L, P = 0.0002; and 50.83 ± 43.19 vs. 6.4 ± 3.2, P < 0.0001, respectively). Plasma free cortisol rose proportionately higher than total cortisol (124% ± 217.3% vs. 40% ± 33.2%, P = 0.007) following corticotropin. Baseline plasma and urinary F:E ratios were elevated over the reference ranges (13.13 ± 1.5, 1.69 ± 2.8) and were not correlated with plasma free cortisol values (r = 0.2, 0.3 respectively). Over the study period, total cortisol levels and plasma F:E ratios remained elevated, whereas plasma free cortisol levels and urinary F:E ratio declined. At baseline, plasma free cortisol levels were higher in patients who subsequently survived (23.7 ± 10.5 vs. 57.9 ± 45.8 nmol/L, P = 0.04). In septic shock, there is a differential response of plasma total and free cortisol over time and in response to corticotropin. Changes in plasma and urinary F:E ratios suggest tissue modulation of 11-β hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase activity. Total plasma cortisol measurements may not reflect the global adrenal response in septic shock. ABBREVIATIONS: 11β-HSD-11β- hydroxysteroid dehydrogenaseAPACHE-Acute Physiology and Chronic Health EvaluationCBG-corticosteroid-binding globulinFC-free plasma cortisolF:E ratio-cortisol-cortisone ratioSOFA-Sequential Organ Failure Assessment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-33
Number of pages6
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes


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