Corticosteroids for herpes zoster: what do they accomplish?

Jennifer A Santee
American Journal of Clinical Dermatology 2002, 3 (8): 517-24
For some patients, herpes zoster infections not only result in acute pain but serious consequences, including postherpetic neuralgia and damage to ocular tissues. Some authors have recommended corticosteroids for the treatment of these acute symptoms and complications. The literature concerning the use of corticosteroids for herpes zoster, however, either provides conflicting results or includes recommendations based on clinical experience rather than clinical trials. The author performed a search of the literature to address the question of whether corticosteroids are well tolerated and effective for the treatment/prevention of the acute pain of herpes zoster, postherpetic neuralgia, and/or the ocular complications resulting from herpes zoster. While smaller trials found oral corticosteroids beneficial for preventing postherpetic neuralgia, larger, better designed trials have not found oral corticosteroids to be more efficacious than placebo in preventing postherpetic neuralgia. Trials investigating the effect of oral corticosteroids for the acute pain of herpes zoster have found that corticosteroids provide a statistically significant improvement. Whether these improvements are clinically significant is uncertain. Thus, oral corticosteroids may confer a slight benefit for initial symptoms as long as the patient is not at risk for complications resulting from corticosteroid therapy. Most trials of topical and injectable corticosteroids are limited by several shortcomings. Therefore, topical and most forms of parenteral corticosteroids have yet to be proven effective for the treatment of acute pain or prevention of complications. Two controlled, blinded trials investigating the use of intrathecal corticosteroid administration for intractable postherpetic neuralgia suggest that corticosteroid administration results in a significant improvement in pain. Despite this, several authors have voiced concern over possible serious adverse events with the intrathecal administration of corticosteroids. Intrathecal corticosteroids may provide a benefit for intractable postherpetic neuralgia, but because of risks of serious complications, this is a last-line option and should only be administered by experienced personnel.

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