This paper was presented at the 10th European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (28–31 May 2000, Stockholm, Sweden).
Sepsis can be defined as a systemic response to infection [1
]. The incidence of sepsis worldwide is on the increase. Sepsis and its sequels are the leading causes of death in intensive care units. Mortality rates are higher for patients with pre-existing disease, medical conditions, care in the intensive care unit, and multiple organ failure [2
]. Despite steady improvements in antibiotic therapy and intensive care management during the past decade, mortality has remained close to 50%. This high mortality rate has continued to stimulate interest in pharmacological agents that might reduce morbidity and mortality [4
Steroid therapy in patients with sepsis is still controversial. In the 1960s, stress doses of hydrocortisone for the treatment of sepsis were investigated, but no advantages could be shown in a double-blind multicenter study [8
]. This led to the discontinuation of steroid replacement therapy for sepsis. In the 1970s, therapy with pharmacological doses of glucocorticoids was widely used in patients with sepsis and septic shock. The most compelling evidence in favor of corticosteroid treatment was reported by Schumer [9
] in his prospective randomized study of steroid administration to patients with septic shock. These data indicate that methylprednisolone (30 mg/kg) or dexamethasone (3 mg/kg) reduced the mortality rate from 38.4% to 10.5%. However, later in the mid-1980s, pharmacological doses of glucocorticoids for the treatment of sepsis were investigated extensively until several clinical trials gave negative results [10
]. Moreover, there is some evidence that the use of high-dose glucocorticoids in sepsis might be harmful [11
Many studies have demonstrated that elevated cortisol levels in sepsis and the degree of elevation are related to the severity of illness [13
]. Basal and corticotropin (ACTH)-stimulated cortisol levels correlate with the severity of illness, and very high cortisol levels often signify a poor prognosis [14
]. In sepsis, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis is activated through systemic and neural pathways. Circulating cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor α, interleukin-1 and interleukin-6 activate the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis independently and, when combined, have synergistic effects [15
Sepsis can also cause adrenal insufficiency (AI), which is associated with increased mortality [16
]. In recent years, several authors have proposed a syndrome of occult AI in septic shock in the presence of normal or even elevated serum cortisol concentrations. This hypothesis is based on many studies investigating the adrenocortical response of patients with septic shock to 0.25 mg of ACTH. Up to 28% of seriously ill patients have been suggested to have occult or unrecognized AI [14
]. The prevalence of occult AI (a cortisol increment after a short ACTH test of less than 9 mg/dl) in severe sepsis was estimated at about 50% and the 28-day mortality rate at about 75% [17
]. A few studies have indicated that stress doses of hydrocortisone improve hemody-namics in patients with hyperdynamic septic shock, which is unresponsive to conventional therapy [18
]. However, the use of a physiological dose of steroid in patients with sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock has not yet been completely evaluated. We therefore performed a placebo-controlled, randomized, double-blind, single-center study.
The aim of this study was to assess basal cortisol concentrations and the cortisol response to ACTH stimulation as well as their prognostic importance, and also to determine the effects of the physiological-dose steroid therapy on mortality in patients with sepsis.