Adrenal insufficiency has been reported with increased frequency in critical ill patients with sepsis and other inflammatory states. Its incidence varies widely depending on the criteria used to define it and the patient population studied. Increased glucocorticoid action is essential in the stress response to acute injury and even minor degrees of adrenal insufficiency can be fatal. Recently the so-called relative or functional adrenal insufficiency (CIRCI) has been described: in this syndrome cortisol levels may be low or high but nonetheless inadequate to meet the elevated metabolic demand. Since laboratory diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency is still controversial, the diagnosis of ICU associated adrenal insufficiency is essentially a clinical diagnosis. Whether exogenous corticosteroid support may be beneficial in critical illness is still a matter of debate: most international guidelines recommend that the decision to treat patients with corticosteroids should be based on clinical criteria (low blood pressure poorly responsive to vasopressor despite adequate fluid resuscitation) rather than on tests of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis alone. As regards specifically the role of steroids in the treatment of sepsis and septic shock, at present there are no strong evidence-based recommendations. More studies are needed to reach consensus about several issues: which is the best target population, whether a cosyntropin test should be used to guide treatment, whether fludrocortisones should be given along with hydrocortisone, and how long treatment should continue.
Keywords: Septic shock, corticosteroids, adrenal insufficiency, corticotropin test, CIRCI, vasopressor
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