Sore throat is among the most common complaints in the emergency department (ED). Sometimes, the etiology is bacterial, and in those cases antibiotics may shorten the duration of disease and provide symptomatic relief. The majority of cases are viral and though most are appropriately treated with symptom management in the forms of NSAIDS and acetaminophen, some are prescribed antibiotics before cultures result in the hopes of alleviating pain. Corticosteroids are another treatment modality with prior studies suggesting their effectiveness. That said, steroids remain an uncommon therapy for a common disease.

Clinical Question

Do single, low dose corticosteroids provide symptomatic relief in undifferentiated pharyngitis without significant adverse effects?


Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials

Intervention: Standard of care (abx if indicated +/- analgesia) + corticosteroids

Control: Standard of care (abx if indicated +/- analgesia)

Literature Search

Medline, Embase, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), trial registries up to May 2017, referece lists of eligible trials, related reviews.


  • Complete resolution of pain at 24 and 48 hours
  • Mean time to onset of pain relief
  • Mean time to complete resolution of pain
  • Absolute reduction of pain at 24 hours
  • Recurrence or relapse of symptoms
  • Days missed from school or work
  • Need for antibiotics
  • Rate of adverse events related to treatment


Studies including patients aged 5 and over in the ED and primary care settings with a clinical syndrome of sore throat (painful throat, odynophagia, or pharyngitis).


Excluded studies of patients admitted to the hospital, immunocompromised patients, patients with mononucleosis, post surgical and post intubation sore throat, GERD, croup, PTA

Primary Results

  • 10 RCTs that studied a total of 1426 individuals
  • One RCT in this meta analysis reported a possible decrease in antibiotic use among those receiving steroids
  • Two studies showed a possible decrease in amount of work missed among those receiving steroids
  • No significant adverse events reported

Critical Results

  • At 24 hours, patients who received single dose steroids were twice as likely to experience symptom resolution when compared to placebo
    • 22.4% vs. 10% (RR 2.24, 95% CI 1.17 to 4.29)
    • NNT = 8
  • At 48 hours, patient who received steroids were 50% more likely to experience symptom resolution when compared to placebo
    • 60.8% vs. 42.5% (RR 1.48, 95% CI 1.26 to 1.75)
    • NNT = 5.5
  • Mean time to onset of pain relief was 4.8 hours earlier in patients who received steroids
  • Mean time to complete resolution of symptoms was 11.1 hours earlier in patient who received steroids
  • Absolute reduction of pain at 24 hours was 1.3 points lower (3.3 vs 4.6 on a scale of 0 – 10) in patients who received steroids (95% CI 0.7 to 1.9)
  • Subgroup of patients given IM steroids had slightly better outcomes in comparison to oral steroids


  • Looked at an important clinical and patient centered outcome
  • Searched for articles in multiple databases (Medline, Embase, Cochrane)
  • Studies included were evaluated for quality of evidence using a GRADE approach and risk of bias using the Cochrane risk of bias instrument
  • Meta analysis reviewed only randomized control studies
  • Thorough exclusion criteria to avoid confounding elements such as EBV and PTA
  • Included most prior, relevant RCTs on the matter and included the latest published in 2017 examining pharyngitis without initial antibiotic administration


  • Two out of ten studies did not include any data on adverse events
  • “Standard care” was not standardized across studies – some patients got analgesics, some did not; some patients got antibiotics, some did not
  • Heterogeneity between studies was moderate
  • Many of these studies included patients with mild symptoms. There may have been a larger benefit in patients with more severe disease
  • The dose of steroids in pediatric patients (i.e. dexamethasone 0.6 mg/kg) may not truly be “low dose.” An 18-kg child would get 10 mg of dexamethasone as would an adult
  • Imprecise and inconsistent data behind many of the outcome results
  • Studies used different steroid treatments. Most studies used single low dose dexamethasone as their intervention. One study provided more than one dose, one study used prednisone, one study used betamethasone.

Author's Conclusions

“Single low dose corticosteroids can provide pain relief in patients with sore throat, with no increase in serious adverse effects.”

Our Conclusions

Of all the outcomes, only the complete resolution of symptoms at 48 hours is backed by high quality evidence and a narrow confidence interval. Steroids also appear to provide only a moderate improvement in time to and degree of resolution of symptoms. However, in the setting of severe symptoms, these moderate improvements could make a significant difference.

Potential Impact To Current Practice

This study validates prior studies suggesting corticosteroids offer therapeutic benefit in the management of sore throat. Clinicians should strongly consider adding a single dose of corticosteroids to their treatment regimen for patients with pharyngitis.

Bottom Line

In cases of severe pharyngitis, single low dose corticosteroid administration would likely provide symptomatic benefit that outweigh potential adverse effects.

Read More

The SGEM: SGEM #203: Let Me Clear My Sore Throat with a Corticosteroid

REBEL EM: Do Patients with Strep Throat Need to Be Treated with Antibiotics?