Steroid Medication for Nasal Obstruction in Infants May Cause Cushing’s Syndrome

Intranasal steroid drops used to treat nasal obstruction may cause Cushing’s syndrome and adrenal insufficiency in infants, a case study of two patients suggests.

The study, “Iatrogenic Cushing’s syndrome and adrenal insufficiency in infants on intranasal dexamethasone drops for nasal obstruction – Case series and literature review,” was published in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology.

Children with nasal obstruction may have severe delays in development and can face life-threatening complications later in life such as obstructive sleep apnea and cardiopulmonary problems.

While intranasal steroid drops have become increasingly popular as a substitute for surgery, they can have adverse effects. In addition to suppressing the immune system and changing metabolism, high levels of corticosteroids in the blood may cause Cushing’s syndrome.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College presented two cases of adrenal gland insufficiency and Cushing’s syndrome caused by intranasal dexamethasone drops. Dexamethasone is a type of corticosteroid medication.

First, they described the case of a 3-month-old boy who was taken to the hospital following a life-threatening episode at home after feeding. A physical evaluation revealed nasal congestion with no additional anatomic abnormalities.

Treatment with nasal dexamethasone drops three times a day improved his breathing. While the dosage was later decreased to three drops once daily, a congestion episode led the mother to increase the dose back to the initial recommendation.

After seven weeks of treatment, the boy was noted to have facial puffiness, leading to an endocrine evaluation that revealed low cortisol levels. The dose was eventually reduced, and the boy’s cortisol levels returned to normal after several months.

The second case was a 6-week-old boy with a history of chronic congestion and difficulty feeding. He had severe nasal obstruction and required intubation due to respiratory distress. A nasal exam revealed damaged mucosa with severe nasal cavity narrowing, and he began treatment with three ciprofloxacin-dexamethasone drops three times a day.

After two and a half weeks of treatment, the boy’s cortisol levels were considerably low, and adrenal insufficiency was diagnosed. The treatment dose was reduced in an attempt to improve cortisol levels, but nasal obstruction symptoms continued.

The child then underwent surgery to resolve his nasal obstruction, and the treatment with steroid drops was discontinued. While his cortisol levels subsequently improved, they continued to be low, suggesting that he may have a hormone-related disease.

Despite the benefits of steroid-based nasal drops, small infants are more sensitive to steroid compounds. In addition, nasal drops are more easily absorbed than nasal sprays, suggesting that infants taking these medications should be better controlled for side effects.

“Patients started on this therapy must be closely monitored in a multi-disciplinary fashion to ensure patient safety and optimal symptom resolution,” the researchers suggested.


History of Cortisone’s Discovery

It was Christmas Day in 1914 when the Mayo Clinic chemist Edward C. Kendall, PhD, first succeeded in isolating pure crystalline thyroxin using 6,500 pounds of hog thyroid glands, a success that would set him on the course for making one of the greatest discoveries in medicine in the last century.

His pivotal discovery, according to William F. Young, Jr., MD, MSc, chair of the division of endocrinology, diabetes, metabolism and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, would lead Kendall, a self-described “hormone hunter,” to conduct adrenal experiments that would eventually change the course of medicine in ways he couldn’t have imagined. Kendall and his team’s discovery of cortisone would lead not only to a breakthrough treatment, Young said, but a Nobel Prize and international acclaim.

In an interview prior to presenting the Clark T. Swain Memorial History of Endocrinology Lecture at ENDO 2017, Young said that understanding the history behind such a monumental discovery can help endocrinologists see how hormone research has evolved, and provides insight into how to make advances in basic science and improve patient care. In preparing to tell Kendall’s story, Young completed archival research at Mayo and uncovered information that has not previously been published, he said.

“The cortisone story originated at Mayo Clinic, where I have been on staff for 33 years,” Young told Endocrine Today. “Although much of this story is not new information, it is not familiar to the current generations of endocrine scientists and clinical endocrinologists. It is a story of discovery science, clinical intuition, persistence, team science, patient volunteerism and sacrifice, hopes, and dreams.”

‘A big oak tree’

When Kendall first took on the project of preparing better adrenal extracts to potentially treat Addison’s disease in 1930, he was already thinking bigger, Young said.

“He once said, ‘I want to grow a great big oak tree … I am not interested in a bunch of blackberry bushes,’” Young said.

During his experiments at Mayo Clinic, the cost of bovine adrenals rose from 0.20 cents a pound to $3 per pound, equivalent to $42 per pound today. In 1934, Kendall struck a deal with Parke Davis Co., were he would extract “adrenalin” at no cost for the company if it would, in turn, deliver to him 600 pounds of bovine adrenals each week, Young said. He would then use the adrenal cortex for his studies.

In addition, Kendall struck a side deal with Wilson Labs, Young said, for an additional 300 pounds of bovine adrenals per week, to produce a cortical extract for them. He would in turn use the adrenal medullas to boost his production of adrenalin for the Park Davis deal.

“From 1934 to 1949, virtually all of the adrenaline used in North America was manufactured at Mayo Clinic in the small town of in Rochester, Minnesota,” Young said. “This lab ran 24 hours a day, in three shifts. By 1949, over 150 tons of adrenal glands had been processed at Mayo Clinic … $12.4 million in research supply dollars.”

A new discovery

In 1934, Kendall recognized through his work that the adrenal cortex produced more than one hormone, Young said. Over the next year, Kendall’s group isolated five crystalline compounds, naming them compounds “A” through “E” based on their order of identification. Compound “E” — what would later be named cortisone — was found to be biologically active, Young said.

Interest in synthesizing the active hormone from the adrenal cortex grew as part of the American war effort in the 1940s, Young said, and the U.S. National Research Council made it a priority. By 1948, 9,000 mg of “compound E” had been synthesized for clinical study; 2,000 mg were given to each of three investigators at Mayo Clinic for studies in patients with Addison’s disease and the remaining 3,000 mg were saved for future study.

In 1948, a patient known as H.G., a 28-year-old women with progressive inflammatory arthritis, presented to the clinic, Young said. After an unsuccessful treatment with the Swedish hepatoxin lactophenin — a therapy used at the time that induced jaundice in some patients, leading to remission — her physician, Philip Hench, went to Kendall for help. Kendall agreed to give Hench some of the remaining 3,000 mg of “compound E,” if Hench could convince Merck to grant permission.

The clinicians did get permission, and H.G. began treatment. Within days, Young said, the improvement was remarkable. Reading from the original, handwritten notes of Hench and his colleagues in rheumatology, , Young detailed the patient’s progress:

“Rolled over and turned off the radio with ease for the first time in weeks,” the notes said from “day 3.” “No more trembling of knees when moving.”

The clinicians were so amazed, Young said, that they filmed H.G’s progress. Young, who obtained the original films from the Mayo Clinic archives, showed footage of a crippled H.G. struggling to stand, only to be walking normally.

“They started taking videos because they realized no one would believe them,” Young said as the video played. “That they actually had something that could affect, up until this point, a crippling disorder.”

Hench came up with the acronym “cortisone,” adapted from corticosterone.

The discovery became international news. In December 1950, Kendall, Hench along with Tadeus Reichstein, received the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine — just 27 months after H.G. received her first dose of “compound E.”

The future of corticosteroids

Today, Young said, corticosteroids are used for their anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties across the field of medicine. Natural and synthetic glucocorticoids are used to treat a wide variety of non-adrenal diseases, from allergies, to gastrointestinal disorders and infectious diseases.

The important story of patient H.G. — and the scientific journey of Kendall and his colleagues — still resonates, Young said.

“My hope is that this story will remind us of our endocrine heritage and give us an opportunity to recognize the unlimited potential for discovery, research and clinical investigation that is taking place in research laboratories and clinical endocrine centers across the globe,” Young said in an interview. “In the current environment in the U.S., where federal research funds are being cut back, it is important to recall where the major advances in research and public health have come from.”

“There are many other messages in the presentation,” Young said. “For example, the importance of ‘team science’— a phrase only recently coined — has been in place for decades. It is team science that has led to many of the major advances in medicine, including the therapeutic use of corticosteroids.” – by Regina Schaffer


Young WF. A Chemist, a Patient and the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine: The Stories Behind the Stories on Cortisone. Presented at: The Endocrine Society Annual Meeting; April 1-4, 2017; Orlando, Fla.

Disclosures: Young reports no relevant financial disclosures.



Cushing’s Syndrome Treatments

Medications, Surgery, and Other Treatments for Cushing’s Syndrome

Written by | Reviewed by Daniel J. Toft MD, PhD

Treatment for Cushing’s syndrome depends on what symptoms you’re experiencing as well as the cause of Cushing’s syndrome.

Cushing’s syndrome is caused by an over-exposure to the hormone cortisol. This excessive hormone exposure can come from a tumor that’s over-producing either cortisol or adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH—which stimulates the body to make cortisol). It can also come from taking too many corticosteroid medications over a long period of time; corticosteroids mimic the effect of cortisol in the body.

The goal of treatment is to address the over-exposure. This article walks you through the most common treatments for Cushing’s syndrome.

Gradually decreasing corticosteroid medications: If your doctor has identified that the cause of your Cushing’s syndrome is corticosteroid medications, you may be able to manage your Cushing’s syndrome symptoms by reducing the overall amount of corticosteroids you take.

It’s common for some people with certain health conditions—such as arthritis and asthma—to take corticosteroids to help them manage their symptoms. In these cases, your doctor can prescribe non-corticosteroid medications, which will allow you to reduce—or eliminate—your use of corticosteroids.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t stop taking corticosteroid medications on your own—suddenly stopping these medications could lead to a drop in cortisol levels—and you need a healthy amount of cortisol. When cortisol levels get too low, it can cause a variety of symptoms, such as muscle weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood pressure, which may be life-threatening.

Instead, your doctor will gradually reduce your dose of corticosteroids to allow your body to resume normal production of cortisol.

If for some reason you cannot stop taking corticosteroids, your doctor will monitor your condition very carefully, frequently checking to make sure your blood glucose levels as well as your bone mass levels are normal. Elevated blood glucose levels and low bone density are signs of Cushing’s syndrome.

Surgery to remove a tumor: If it’s a tumor causing Cushing’s syndrome, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the tumor. The 2 types of tumors that can cause Cushing’s are pituitary tumors (also called pituitary adenomas) and adrenal tumors. However, other tumors in the body (eg, in the lungs or pancreas) can cause Cushing’s syndrome, too.

Pituitary adenomas are benign (non-cancerous), and most adrenal tumors are as well. However, in rare cases, adrenal tumors can be malignant (cancerous). These tumors are called adrenocortical carcinomas, and it’s important to treat them right away.

Surgery for removing a pituitary tumor is a delicate process. It’s typically performed through the nostril, and your surgeon will use tiny specialized tools. The success, or cure, rate of this procedure is more than 80% when performed by a surgeon with extensive experience. If surgery fails or only produces a temporary cure, surgery can be repeated, often with good results.

If you have surgery to remove an adrenal tumor or tumor in your lungs or pancreas, your surgeon will typically remove it through a standard open surgery (through an incision in your stomach or back) or minimally invasive surgery in which small incisions are made and tiny tools are used.

In some cases of adrenal tumors, surgical removal of the adrenal glands may be necessary.

Radiation therapy for tumors: Sometimes your surgeon can’t remove the entire tumor. If that happens, he or she may recommend radiation therapy—a type of treatment that uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and/or destroy cancer cells.

Radiation therapy may also be prescribed if you’re not a candidate for surgery due to various reasons, such as location or size of the tumor. Radiation therapy for Cushing’s syndrome is typically given in small doses over a period of 6 weeks or by a technique called stereotactic radiosurgery or gamma-knife radiation.

Stereotactic radiosurgery is a more precise form of radiation. It targets the tumor without damaging healthy tissue.

With gamma-knife radiation, a large dose of radiation is sent to the tumor, and radiation exposure to the healthy surrounding tissues is minimized. Usually one treatment is needed with this type of radiation.

Medications for Cushing’s syndrome: If surgery and/or radiation aren’t effective, medications can be used to regulate cortisol production in the body. However, for people who have severe Cushing’s syndrome symptoms, sometimes medications are used before surgery and radiation treatment. This can help control excessive cortisol production and reduce risks during surgery.

Examples of medications your doctor may prescribe for Cushing’s syndrome are: aminoglutethimide (eg, Cytadren), ketoconazole (eg, Nizoral), metyrapone (eg, Metopirone), and mitotane (eg, Lysodren). Your doctor will let you know what medication—or combination of medications—is right for you.

You may also need to take medication after surgery to remove a pituitary tumor or adrenal tumor. Your doctor will most likely prescribe a cortisol replacement medication. This medication helps provide the proper amount of cortisol in your body. An example of this type of medication is hydrocortisone (a synthetic form of cortisol).

Experiencing the full effects of the medication can take up to a year or longer. But in most cases and under your doctor’s careful supervision, you can slowly reduce your use of cortisol replacement medications because your body will be able to produce normal cortisol levels again on its own. However, in some cases, people who have surgery to remove a tumor that causes Cushing’s syndrome won’t regain normal adrenal function, and they’ll typically need lifelong replacement therapy.2

Treating Cushing’s Syndrome Conclusion
You may need one treatment or a combination of these treatments to effectively treat your Cushing’s syndrome. Your doctor will let you know what treatments for Cushing’s syndrome you’ll need.


Causes of Cushing’s Syndrome

Cushing’s syndrome—also referred to as hypercortisolism—is fairly rare. However, researchers have boiled down a few key causes of Cushing’s syndrome, which you’ll read about below.

The cause of Cushing’s syndrome boils down to: Your body is exposed to too much cortisol. There are a few ways that this over-exposure can happen, including taking certain medications and having a tumor on your pituitary gland or adrenal gland.

Can Taking Corticosteroids Cause Cushing’s Disease?
One particular type of medication can cause Cushing’s syndrome: corticosteroids. But rest assured: Not all steroid medications cause Cushing’s syndrome. It’s more common to develop Cushing’s syndrome from steroids you take in pill form or steroids you inject. Steroid creams and steroids you inhale are not common causes of Cushing’s syndrome.

Some steroid medications have the same effect as the hormone cortisol does when produced in your body. But as with an excessive production of cortisol in your body, taking too much corticosteroid medications can, over time, lead to Cushing’s syndrome.

It’s common for people with asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus to take corticosteroids. Prednisone (eg, Deltasone) is an example of a corticosteroid medication.

Other Cushing’s Disease Causes
Your body can over-produce cortisol or adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The pituitary gland secretes ACTH, which is in charge of stimulating the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, and the adrenal glands are responsible for releasing cortisol into the bloodstream.

Cortisol performs important tasks in your body, such as helping to maintain blood pressure and regulate how your body metabolizes proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, so it’s necessary for your body to maintain normal levels of it.

The following can cause excessive production of cortisol or ACTH, leading to Cushing’s syndrome.

  • Pituitary gland tumors: A benign (non-cancerous) tumor of the pituitary gland can secrete an excess amount of ACTH, which can cause Cushing’s syndrome. Also known as pituitary adenomas, benign tumors of the pituitary gland affect women 5 times more often than men.
  • Adrenal gland tumors: A tumor in one of your adrenal glands can lead to Cushing’s syndrome by causing too much cortisol to enter your bloodstream. Most of these tumors are non-cancerous (called adrenal adenomas).

    Cancerous adrenal tumors—called adrenocortical carcinomas—are relatively rare. These types of tumors typically cause extremely high levels of cortisol and very rapid development of symptoms.

  • Other tumors in the body: Certain tumors that develop outside the pituitary gland can also produce ACTH. When this happens, it’s known as ectopic ACTH syndrome. Ectopic means that something is in an abnormal place or position. In this case, only the pituitary gland should produce ACTH, so if there is a tumor producing ACTH and it isn’t located on the pituitary, it’s ectopic.

    It’s unusual to have a tumor that secretes ACTH outside the pituitary. These tumors are usually found in the pancreas, lungs, or thyroid, and they can be benign or malignant (cancerous).

    The most common forms of ACTH-producing tumors are small cell lung cancer, which accounts for about 13% of all lung cancer cases, and carcinoid tumors—small, slow-growing tumors that arise from hormone-producing cells in various parts of the body.

  • Familial Cushing’s syndrome: Although it’s rare, Cushing’s syndrome can develop from an inherited tendency to have tumors on one or more of your endocrine glands. Some inherited conditions, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN 1), can involve tumors that over-produce cortisol or ACTH, leading to Cushing’s syndrome.

If you think you could have Cushing’s syndrome or you have questions about the causes of Cushing’s syndrome, talk to your doctor immediately.

Written by | Reviewed by Daniel J. Toft MD, PhD, adapted from

Common Asthma Steroids Linked to Side Effects in Adrenal Glands

(Reuters Health) – After stopping steroids commonly prescribed for asthma and allergies, a significant number of people may experience signs of malfunctioning in the adrenal glands, a European study finds.

So-called adrenal insufficiency can be dangerous, especially if the person’s body has to cope with a stress like surgery, injury or a serious illness, the study authors say.

“The takeaway message of the study is that in corticosteroid use there is a substantial risk of adrenal insufficiency,” senior author Dr. Olaf Dekkers, an endocrinologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, said by email. “Patients should be aware of this risk and be informed about potential symptoms.”

Those symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness, weight loss and salt cravings, the authors write in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Corticosteroids are man-made drugs designed to mimic the hormone cortisol, which the adrenal glands produce naturally. The drugs are usually used to counter inflammation in a wide range of conditions, including asthma, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, blood cancers and organ transplants.

People with adrenal insufficiency do not make enough of two hormones, cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol helps the body respond to stress, recover from infections and regulate blood pressure and metabolism. Aldosterone helps maintain the right amounts of salt, potassium and water in the body.

While on steroids, the body often produces less of these hormones naturally, and after coming off the drugs it can take a while for natural production to ramp back up. The result is adrenal insufficiency, which can be treated with medication to replace cortisol or aldosterone.

Dekkers and colleagues analyzed 74 research articles published from 1975 to 2014, covering a total of 3753 study participants, to see how different doses and types of corticosteroid treatment might impact the likelihood of developing adrenal insufficiency after treatment.

Researchers found the risk of adrenal insufficiency was highest when corticosteroids were taken orally or injected, and lower with inhaled, nasal or topical treatment.

When they looked just at patients using steroids for asthma, the researchers found that the risk of adrenal insufficiency was about 7 percent with inhaled corticosteroids, but about 44 percent with other formulations including oral medication.

Only about 2 percent of asthma patients on the lowest dose of steroids experienced adrenal insufficiency, compared with about 22 percent on the highest doses.

Similarly, slightly more than 1 percent of asthma patients on short-term steroids developed adrenal insufficiency, compared with about 27 percent on long-term treatment.

There is no way to safely halt treatment with corticosteroids that can rule out the potential for adrenal insufficiency, Dekkers said.

The side effect is more likely when patients take higher doses of steroids or remain on treatment for longer than three weeks, said Dr. Roberto Salvatori, medical director of the pituitary center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

“It’s likely, and it’s often overlooked because most often the people who prescribe corticosteroids aren’t endocrinologists; they are in other specialities and they don’t recognize the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency,” said Salvatori, who wasn’t involved in the study.

He gives his patients on corticosteroids medical identification bracelets or necklaces to wear so they can be identified as at risk for adrenal insufficiency in an emergency. “This is a very important issue that’s not on the radar screen,” he said.

To be sure, more physicians are aware of the risk now than in the 1970s, and the standard doses and durations of corticosteroid treatment have been reduced in part because of this risk, said Dr. Douglas Coursin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. He, too, advises medical alert bracelets for patients on long-term or high-dose treatment.

“In the past, patients with asthma, certain immune diseases, those receiving some cancer therapies and those who had a solid organ transplant received higher doses for longer periods of time,” Coursin, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “Overall, I think the risk may be lower than outlined in the study because of practice changes.”

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, online April 6, 2015.

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