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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(1):66-67

Clinical Scenario

A two-year-old child presents with a barking cough, stridor, and tachypnea.

Clinical Question

Are glucocorticoids effective in treating children with croup?

Evidence-Based Answer

Compared with placebo, treatment with glucocorticoids results in reduced symptoms, less need for treatment with racemic epinephrine, fewer readmissions to emergency departments, and shorter hospital stays.

Practice Pointers

Croup is an acute viral inflammation of the upper and lower respiratory tracts, characterized by inspiratory stridor, barking cough, subglottic swelling, and respiratory distress. Each year, croup occurs in up to 6 percent of children six months to six years of age.

Cochrane Abstract

Background. Since the initial version of this review in 1997, a number of randomized trials examining the benefit of glucocorticoids have been published, reflecting a continued interest in the use of glucocorticoids to treat patients with croup. The objective of this review1 was to provide evidence to guide physicians in their treatment of patients with croup by determining the effectiveness of glucocorticoids and to identify areas of uncertainty for future research.

Objectives. To determine the effect of glucocorticoids in children with croup.

Search Strategy. The authors searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (issue 1, 2003), MEDLINE (January 1966 to April 2003), and Excerpta Medica/EMBASE (January 1974 to August 2003). They also contacted authors of identified croup trials published in the past 10 years to inquire about additional published or unpublished trials.

Selection Criteria. Randomized controlled trials that examined children with croup and objectively measured the effectiveness of glucocorticoid treatment were included.

Data Collection and Analysis. Based on reviews of titles and abstracts (when available), two researchers identified potentially relevant studies. The complete text was retrieved, and studies were independently reviewed for relevance by two reviewers using a priori inclusion criteria. Two observers independently assessed quality. Differences in inclusion status and quality assessment were resolved by consensus. Data were extracted using a structured form by one reviewer and checked for accuracy by a second reviewer. Standard statistical analyses were performed.

Primary Results. A total of 31 studies were deemed relevant for inclusion (N = 3,736). Glucocorticoid treatment was associated with an improvement in the Westley score at six hours (weighted mean difference [WMD], −1.2; 95 percent confidence interval [CI], −1.6 to −0.8) and at 12 hours (WMD, −1.9; 95 percent CI, −2.4 to −1.3); at 24 hours the improvement was no longer significant (WMD, −1.3; 95 percent CI, −2.7 to 0.2). Fewer return visits and readmissions occurred in patients treated with glucocorticoids (relative risk, 0.50; 95 percent CI, 0.36 to 0.70). The length of time spent in emergency departments and hospitals was significantly decreased in patients treated with glucocorticoids (WMD, 12 hours; 95 percent CI, five to 19 hours). Children treated with a glucocorticoid used less epinephrine (risk difference, 10 percent; 95 percent CI, 1 to 20 percent). No other decreases in additional treatments were found in the primary analysis. Publication bias does not significantly impact results. No between-trial significant differences were found between populations with mild and moderate croup. Oral dexamethasone may be superior to intramuscular dexamethasone.

Reviewers’ Conclusions. Dexamethasone and budesonide are effective in relieving the symptoms of croup as early as six hours after treatment. Fewer return visits and readmissions are required, and the length of time spent in the hospital is decreased in inpatients. Dexamethasone also is effective in patients with mild croup. Research is required to examine the most beneficial method for disseminating croup practice guidelines and to increase the uptake of evidence to improve outcomes.

These summaries have been derived from Cochrane reviews published in the Cochrane Database of SystematicReviews in the Cochrane Library. Their content has, as far as possible, been checked with the authors of the originalreviews, but the summaries should not be regarded as an official product of the Cochrane Collaboration; minorediting changes have been made to the text (

Croup is self-limited, usually lasting four to seven days, but about one in 20 children with croup who present to emergency departments requires hospitalization.2

Standard therapy for croup includes cool-mist humidification, hydration, supplemental oxygen, and general comfort measures. Nebulized racemic epinephrine improves symptoms and reduces respiratory fatigue, but these results are transient. Hospitalization is indicated in children with increasing or persistent respiratory distress, fatigue, cyanosis, or dehydration. In severe cases, patients may require intubation and mechanical ventilation. Stridor, cyanosis, sternal retraction, tachypnea, and tachycardia increase the risk for intubation.3

Most of the articles evaluated in this review used the Westley croup scoring system4 to measure symptoms. This system assigns points for stridor, retractions, air entry, cyanosis, and level of consciousness. The use of glucocorticoids reduced symptom scores at six and 12 hours compared with placebo. In patients who received glucocorticoids, 69 percent improved at six hours, and 84 percent improved at 12 hours, compared with 46 percent and 61 percent, respectively, in patients who received placebo (number needed to treat [NNT], six to seven for both time intervals). Administration of glucocorticoids also led to fewer admissions or readmissions (NNT, 11), shorter emergency department and inpatient lengths of stay, and less need for racemic epinephrine.

There is insufficient research comparing the various glucocorticoids, or establishing the most effective glucocorticoid dosage and the most effective route of administration. Preliminary evidence suggests that oral and intramuscular dexamethasone may have equivalent efficacies, and that either may be more effective than nebulized dexamethasone or budesonide.57

These are summaries of reviews from the Cochrane Library.

This series is coordinated by Corey D. Fogleman, MD, assistant medical editor.

A collection of Cochrane for Clinicians published in AFP is available at

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