Prolonged exposure to supra-physiologic doses of glucocorticoids (GCs) can suppresses the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, requiring steroid weaning to prevent signs/symptoms of cortisol deficiency.
Limited evidence exists to guide wean speed and duration. Acute signs/symptoms of adrenal insufficiency: lethargy, anorexia, abdominal pain, vomiting, dehydration, tachycardia, hypotension, cyanosis, cold skin, hyponatremia with or without hypokalemia, metabolic acidosis, hypoglycemia. A simplified approach to tapering steroids after either short-term or long term steroid exposure.
Predicting Adrenal Insufficiency Risk
|AI Risk||Risk factors||Tapering Guidelines|
|Low Risk||LESS THAN 2 weeks (14 days) of GC exposure.|
NOT critically ill (vasopressors and/or mechanically ventilated)
|Stop GCs (or return to home physiologic replacement dose) with NO taper. If taper requested, taper by 25% of reference dose every 2-3 days|
|Possible Risk||2 – 3 weeks (14-21 days) of GC exposure.|
LESS THAN 2 weeks (14 days) of GC exposure AND critically ill (vasopressors and/or mechanically ventilated)
|Taper by 25% of reference dose every 4-7 days. Slow the speed of glucocorticoid taper if signs/symptoms of adrenal insufficiency occur|
|High Risk||GREATER THAN 3 weeks (21 days) of GC exposure||Strongly consider ACTH stim test.|
GREATER THAN 18 = normal (should not require steroid wean)
15 – 18 = call endocrinology
LESS THAN 15 = suppressed (will require steroid wean)
Tapering schedules after short-term steroid exposure
Any patient with <3 weeks of glucocorticoid treatment is unlikely to have clinically significant adrenal suppression. If the medical condition allows it, glucocorticoid treatment can be stopped acutely. It should be noted that significant stress within one week of stopping steroids should, however, be covered with glucocorticoids.
Exceptions to the above general rule….
- Patients with other possible reasons for adrenal insufficiency
- Received >40mg prednisolone (or equivalent)
- Evening doses of hydrocortisone (Due to greater Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis suppression)
- Short courses prescribed within 1 year of cessation of long-term steroid therapy
Tapering schedules after long-term steroid exposure
Supraphysiological doses of steroids refer to >5mg of prednisone or the equivalent of glucocorticoid (see the steroid conversion table). Patients exposed to a cumulatively high dose of steroids or a longer duration of exposure require a slower taper of steroids.
Dose reduction depends on disease activity. (If the underlying disease has resolved, reduce prednisone by 2.5mg every 3-5 days till a dose of 5mg prednisone steroid equivalent is reached. Next...
Once a daily equivalent dose of 5mg is reached (rate of reduction should be slower to allow recovery of HPA axis). Next...
Consider switching to PO hydrocortisone (average BSA estimate of 20mg daily in the morning only). This has a shorter half-life and allows recovery of the axis. (less prolonged suppression of ACTH). Next...
- Daily hydrocortisone dose should be reduced by 2.5mg every 1-2 weeks or as tolerated until a dose of 10mg is reached. Next...
- After this 2-3 month taper period, a 9 AM cortisol is checked 24 hours after the last dose of hydrocortisone. Then interpret cortisol levels...
- If cortisol is >10mcg/dl, then hydrocortisone can be stopped and a cortrosyn test performed.
- If cortisol is <10mcg/dl, then continue hydrocortisone 10mg for another 2-3 months and repeat 9 AM cortisol.
If basal cortisol is >14mcg/dl, stop regular hydrocortisone and administer in emergency only. Supplemental stress dose steroids during intercurrent illness are not required.
Steroid Conversion Table
|Type of Steroid||Equivalent Total Daily Dose (mg)||Doses per day|
Comparison of Mineralocorticoid and Glucocorticoid Potency of Steroids
|Glucocorticoids||Equivalent Dose (mg)||Glucocorticoid Potency||Mineralocorticoid Potency||Half-life (hrs)||Physiologic Dose|
|Hydrocortisone||20||1||1||2||6 - 12 mg/m2/day|
|Prednisone||5||4||0.3||2.5||1.5 - 3 mg/m2/day|
|Prednisolone||5||5||0.3||2||1.5 - 3 mg/m2/day|
Try our Steroid Conversion Calculator. An easy way to convert between various glucocorticoid formulations
Performing the Cortrosyn stimulation Test after a steroid taper
A dynamic test for the evaluation of suspected adrenal insufficiency.
The test cannot distinguish between primary and secondary AI
Limitations of this test
• Estrogen in OCPs may increase corticosteroid-binding globulin and thus increase total serum cortisol.
• Low albumin can lead to a spuriously low serum cortisol
• It does not distinguish between primary and secondary AI (normal stimulation test if adrenocortical atrophy has not set in yet)
How to Perform the Test
Draw a baseline serum cortisol (at any time, need not be in the early morning), then inject 250mcg of Cosyntropin(Cortrosyn), IM or IV. Draw serum cortisol (total) at 30 and 60 minutes.
Interpretation of test results
Peak serum cortisol >18mcg/dL or an increment of >7mcg/dL over the baseline cortisol level rules out adrenal insufficiency. For newer cortisol assays, a level of >14mcg/dl, effectively rules out AI.
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- Liu D, Ahmet A, Ward L, Krishnamoorthy P, Mandelcorn ED, Leigh R, Brown JP, Cohen A, Kim H. A practical guide to the monitoring and management of the complications of systemic corticosteroid therapy. Allergy Asthma Clin Immunol. 2013 Aug 15;9(1):30.
- Richter B, Neises G, Clar C. Glucocorticoid withdrawal schemes in chronic medical disorders. A systematic review. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2002;31(3):751-778. doi:10.1016/s0889-8529(02)00008-7
- Becker DE. Basic and clinical pharmacology of glucocorticosteroids. Anesth Prog. 2013;60(1):25-31; quiz 32. doi:10.2344/0003-3006-60.1.25
This was first published on February 19, 2022 and Last Updated on April 8, 2023 by MyEndoConsult