Skip to content

    Health & Pregnancy

    Font Size

    Preterm Birth: Steroids to Avoid Harm?

    Additional Steroid Doses Might Cut Lung Problems in Premature Babies; Long-Term Risks Unclear
    WebMD Health News
    Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

    June 8, 2006 – Giving at-risk mothers more steroids might reduce the lung problems seen in premature babies.

    Preterm births carry a high risk of potentially fatal lung problems – such as respiratory distress syndrome – in babies whose lungs haven't fully developed. To reduce that risk, doctors often give women at high risk of preterm birth a single dose of corticosteroids.

    More than one steroid dose might help even more, according to a study published in The Lancet.

    However, the long-term effects of additional steroids aren't yet known, note the researchers, who included Caroline Crowther, FRANZCOG, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Australia's University of Adelaide.

    An editorial in The Lancet questions the need for extra steroid doses and recommends caution "until results from long-term follow-up studies are known."

    Steroid Study

    There has been concern, the researchers note, that multiple steroid doses might up women's risk of infection and their babies' risk of abnormal neurological development and slower growth.

    "The efficacy and safety of repeat doses of prenatal steroids is therefore uncertain," write Crowther and colleagues.

    To learn more about the risks, they studied 982 pregnant women judged to be at risk of preterm birth.

    The women, who lived in New Zealand or Australia, all got a single steroid shot. At the time, they were less than 32 weeks pregnant.

    Within a week, researchers randomly split the women into two groups.

    One group got a weekly steroid shot until they reached their 32nd week of pregnancy or were no longer considered at risk for preterm birth. The other group got a weekly shot of saltwater as a placebo.

    Impact of Multiple Steroid Doses

    In the study, fewer babies exposed to multiple steroid doses had respiratory distress syndrome than those whose mothers got the placebo (33% with multiple doses; 41% with placebo).

    Severe lung disease was also rarer with repeated steroid doses than with the placebo (12% with multiple doses; 20% with placebo).

    "In keeping with these benefits, babies exposed to repeat corticosteroids needed less oxygen therapy and shorter duration of mechanical ventilation," write Crowther and colleagues.

    For reasons that aren't clear, more women in the repeat steroid group gave birth by cesarean section than in the placebo group.

    The average age at birth (slightly over 32 weeks) and the number of babies born preterm were similar in the two groups.

    Pregnancy Week-By-Week Newsletter

    Delivered right to your inbox, get pictures and facts on
    what to expect each week of your pregnancy.

    Today on WebMD

    hand circling date on calendar
    Track your most fertile days.
    woman looking at ultrasound
    Week-by-week pregnancy guide.
    Pretty pregnant woman timing contaction pains
    The signs to watch out for.
    pregnant woman in hospital
    Are there ways to do it naturally?
    slideshow fetal development
    pregnancy first trimester warning signs
    What Causes Bipolar
    Woman trying on dress in store
    pregnant woman
    Woman looking at pregnancy test
    calendar and baby buggy
    dark chocolate squares