Respiratory morbidity including respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a serious complication of preterm birth and the primary cause of early neonatal mortality and disability. While researching the effects of the steroid dexamethasone on premature parturition in fetal sheep in 1969, Liggins found that there was some inflation of the lungs of lambs born at gestations at which the lungs would be expected to be airless. Liggins and Howie published the first randomised controlled trial in humans in 1972 and many others followed.
To assess the effects of administering a course of corticosteroids to the mother prior to anticipated preterm birth on fetal and neonatal morbidity and mortality, maternal mortality and morbidity, and on the child in later life.
We searched Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth's Trials Register (17 February 2016) and reference lists of retrieved studies.
We considered all randomised controlled comparisons of antenatal corticosteroid administration (betamethasone, dexamethasone, or hydrocortisone) with placebo, or with no treatment, given to women with a singleton or multiple pregnancy, prior to anticipated preterm delivery (elective, or following spontaneous labour), regardless of other co-morbidity, for inclusion in this review. Most women in this review received a single course of steroids; however, nine of the included trials allowed for women to have weekly repeats.
Data collection and analysis
Two review authors independently assessed trials for inclusion and risk of bias, extracted data and checked them for accuracy. The quality of the evidence was assessed using the GRADE approach.
This update includes 30 studies (7774 women and 8158 infants). Most studies are of low or unclear risk for most bias domains. An assessment of high risk usually meant a trial had potential for performance bias due to lack of blinding. Two trials had low risks of bias for all risk of bias domains.
Treatment with antenatal corticosteroids (compared with placebo or no treatment) is associated with a reduction in the most serious adverse outcomes related to prematurity, including: perinatal death (average risk ratio (RR) 0.72, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.58 to 0.89; participants = 6729; studies = 15; Tau² = 0.05, I² = 34%; moderate-quality); neonatal death (RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.59 to 0.81; participants = 7188; studies = 22), RDS (average RR 0.66, 95% CI 0.56 to 0.77; participants = 7764; studies = 28; Tau² = 0.06, I² = 48%; moderate-quality); moderate/severe RDS (average RR 0.59, 95% CI 0.38 to 0.91; participants = 1686; studies = 6; Tau² = 0.14, I² = 52%); intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH) (average RR 0.55, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.76; participants = 6093; studies = 16; Tau² = 0.10, I² = 33%; moderate-quality), necrotising enterocolitis (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.32 to 0.78; participants = 4702; studies = 10); need for mechanical ventilation (RR 0.68, 95% CI 0.56 to 0.84; participants = 1368; studies = 9); and systemic infections in the first 48 hours of life (RR 0.60, 95% CI 0.41 to 0.88; participants = 1753; studies = 8).
There was no obvious benefit for: chronic lung disease (average RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.42 to 1.79; participants = 818; studies = 6; Tau² = 0.38 I² = 65%); mean birthweight (g) (MD -18.47, 95% CI -40.83 to 3.90; participants = 6182; studies = 16; moderate-quality); death in childhood (RR 0.68, 95% CI 0.36 to 1.27; participants = 1010; studies = 4); neurodevelopment delay in childhood (RR 0.64, 95% CI 0.14 to 2.98; participants = 82; studies = 1); or death into adulthood (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.56 to 1.81; participants = 988; studies = 1).
Treatment with antenatal corticosteroids does not increase the risk of chorioamnionitis (RR 0.83, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.06; participants = 5546; studies = 15; moderate-quality evidence) or endometritis (RR 1.20, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.63; participants = 4030; studies = 10; Tau² = 0.11, I² = 28%; moderate-quality). No increased risk in maternal death was observed. However, the data on maternal death is based on data from a single trial with two deaths; four other trials reporting maternal death had zero events (participants = 3392; studies = 5; moderate-quality).
There is no definitive evidence to suggest that antenatal corticosteroids work differently in any pre-specified subgroups (singleton versus multiple pregnancy; membrane status; presence of hypertension) or for different study protocols (type of corticosteroid; single course or weekly repeats).
GRADE outcomes were downgraded to moderate-quality. Downgrading decisions (for perinatal death, RDS, IVH, and mean birthweight) were due to limitations in study design or concerns regarding precision (chorioamnionitis, endometritis). Maternal death was downgraded for imprecision due to few events.
Evidence from this update supports the continued use of a single course of antenatal corticosteroids to accelerate fetal lung maturation in women at risk of preterm birth.
A single course of antenatal corticosteroids could be considered routine for preterm delivery. It is important to note that most of the evidence comes from high income countries and hospital settings; therefore, the results may not be applicable to low-resource settings with high rates of infections.
There is little need for further trials of a single course of antenatal corticosteroids versus placebo in singleton pregnancies in higher income countries and hospital settings. However, data are sparse in lower income settings. There are also few data regarding risks and benefits of antenatal corticosteroids in multiple pregnancies and other high-risk obstetric groups. Further information is also required concerning the optimal dose-to-delivery interval, and the optimal corticosteroid to use.
We encourage authors of previous studies to provide further information, which may answer any remaining questions about the use of antenatal corticosteroids in such pregnancies without the need for further randomised controlled trials. Individual patient data meta-analysis from published trials is likely to answer some of the evidence gaps. Follow-up studies into childhood and adulthood, particularly in the late preterm gestation and repeat courses groups, are needed. We have not examined the possible harmful effects of antenatal corticosteroids in low-resource settings in this review. It would be particularly relevant to explore this finding in adequately powered prospective trials.