Patient Care

Dexamethasone Potential Therapy for Asthma Exacerbations in Pediatric Inpatients


Clinical question: In children hospitalized in a non-ICU setting with asthma exacerbation, how effective is dexamethasone compared to prednisone/prednisolone?

Background: Asthma is the second most common reason for hospital admission in childhood.1 National guidelines recommend treatment with systemic corticosteroids in addition to beta-agonists.2 Traditionally, prednisone/prednisolone has been used for asthma exacerbations, but multiple recent studies in ED settings have shown equal efficacy with dexamethasone for mild to moderate exacerbations. Benefits of dexamethasone use include a longer half-life (so single dose or two-day courses can be used), good enteral absorption, general palatability, less emesis, and better adherence. To this point, no studies have compared dexamethasone with prednisone/prednisolone therapy in hospitalized children.

Study design: Multicenter, retrospective cohort study.

Setting: Freestanding, tertiary care children’s hospitals.

Synopsis: The authors used the PHIS (Pediatric Health Information System) database, which includes clinical and billing data from 42 children’s hospitals, to compare children who received dexamethasone to those who were treated with prednisone/prednisolone therapy for asthma exacerbations in the inpatient setting. Patients were included if they were aged four to 17 years, were hospitalized between January 2007 and December 2012 with ICD-9 code for a principal diagnosis of asthma, and received either dexamethasone or prednisone/prednisolone.

Exclusion criteria included:

  • Management in the ICU at the time of admission;
  • All patient refined diagnosis related groups (APR-DRG) severity level moderate or extreme;
  • Complex chronic conditions;
  • Secondary diagnosis other than asthma requiring steroids, or treatment with racemic epinephrine;
  • Only the first admission was included out of multiple hospitalizations within a 30-day period; and/or
  • Patient was treated with both dexamethasone and prednisone/prednisolone.

The primary outcome evaluated was length of stay (LOS); secondary outcomes included readmissions, cost, and transfer to ICU during hospitalization. The authors compared the overall groups, then performed 1:1 propensity score matching to address residual confounding; this statistical technique closely matches patient characteristics between cohorts.

Overall, there were 40,257 hospitalizations, with 1,166 children (2.9%) receiving dexamethasone and 39,091 (97.1%) receiving prednisone/prednisolone. The use of dexamethasone varied greatly between hospitals (35/42 hospitals used dexamethasone, with rates ranging from 0.047% to 77.4%).

Costs were lower for the dexamethasone group, both for the index admission and for episode admission (defined as index admission plus seven-day readmissions). There was no difference in readmissions between the groups, and no patients in this cohort were transferred to the ICU.

In the post-match cohort, 1,284 patients were evaluated, 642 in each group. In this cohort, patients with dexamethasone had significantly shorter LOS (67.4% had LOS less than one day vs. 59.5% in the prednisone/prednisolone group; 6.7% of dexamethasone patients had LOS of more than three days vs. 12% of prednisone/prednisolone patients). Costs were lower for the dexamethasone group, both for the index admission and for episode admission (defined as index admission plus seven-day readmissions). There was no difference in readmissions between the groups, and no patients in this cohort were transferred to the ICU.

There are several limitations to this study. Dexamethasone use varied widely among participating hospitals. The data source did not permit access to dosing, duration, or compliance with therapy and could not compare albuterol use between groups. The findings may not be generalizable to all populations, because it excluded patients with high severity and medical complexity and only evaluated tertiary care children’s hospitals.

Bottom line: Dexamethasone is a potential alternative therapy for asthma exacerbations in the inpatient setting. Further studies are needed to evaluate effectiveness, including dosing, frequency, and duration.

Citation: Parikh K, Hall M, Mittal V, et al. Comparative effectiveness of dexamethasone versus prednisone in children hospitalized with asthma. J Pediatr. 2015;167(3):639-644.

Dr. Galloway is a pediatric hospitalist at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, and vice chief of the division of hospital pediatrics at USD SSOM and Sanford Children’s Hospital.


  1. Yu H, Wier LM, Elixhauser A. Hospital stays for children, 2009. HCUP statistical brief #118. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. August 2011. Accessed November 1, 2015.
  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. National Asthma Education and Prevention Program expert panel report 3 (EPR-3): guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma–Summary Report 2007. Accessed November 1, 2015.

Recommended Reading

Nursing Care Top-Ranked Factor in Pediatric Inpatient Satisfaction Survey
The Hospitalist
Pediatric Trigger Tool Helps Identify Inpatient Pediatric Harm
The Hospitalist
How to Develop a Comprehensive Pediatric Palliative Care Program
The Hospitalist
LISTEN NOW: Pediatric Hospital Medicine and the “Right Care” Movement
The Hospitalist
PHM15: Teaching, Supervising Pediatric Hospitalist Fellows
The Hospitalist
PHM15: Challenging Diagnoses, Ethical Dilemmas in Pediatric Immigrant, Refugee Patient Cases
The Hospitalist
New Tool Improves Harm Detection for Pediatric Inpatients
The Hospitalist
Pediatric Physicians React to Bronchiolitis Clinical Practice Guideline
The Hospitalist
Just-In-Time CPR Training Studied in Pediatric Cardiopulmonary Arrest
The Hospitalist
Lean Six Sigma Improves Pediatric Discharge Times
The Hospitalist
   Comments ()