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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

The association between systemic glucocorticoid therapy and the risk of infection in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: systematic review and meta-analyses

William G Dixon12*, Samy Suissa2 and Marie Hudson2

Author Affiliations

1 Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit, Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, Stopford Building, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PT, UK

2 Centre For Clinical Epidemiology, Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University, 3755 Côte Ste-Catherine Road, Montreal, Quebec H3T 1E2, Canada

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Arthritis Research & Therapy 2011, 13:R139  doi:10.1186/ar3453

Published: 31 August 2011



Infection is a major cause of morbidity and mortality in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The objective of this study was to perform a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of glucocorticoid (GC) therapy on the risk of infection in patients with RA.


A systematic review was conducted by using MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials database to January 2010 to identify studies among populations of patients with RA that reported a comparison of infection incidence between patients treated with GC therapy and patients not exposed to GC therapy.


In total, 21 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and 42 observational studies were included. In the RCTs, GC therapy was not associated with a risk of infection (relative risk (RR), 0.97 (95% CI, 0.69, 1.36)). Small numbers of events in the RCTs meant that a clinically important increased or decreased risk could not be ruled out. The observational studies generated a RR of 1.67 (1.49, 1.87), although significant heterogeneity was present. The increased risk (and heterogeneity) persisted when analyses were stratified by varying definitions of exposure, outcome, and adjustment for confounders. A positive dose-response effect was seen.


Whereas observational studies suggested an increased risk of infection with GC therapy, RCTs suggested no increased risk. Inconsistent reporting of safety outcomes in the RCTs, as well as marked heterogeneity, probable residual confounding, and publication bias in the observational studies, limits the opportunity for a definitive conclusion. Clinicians should remain vigilant for infection in patients with RA treated with GC therapy.