What Is Dexamethasone? Trump Given Steroid To Help Fight Coronavirus Infection

The steroid has been shown to reduce deaths among critically ill COVID-19 patients. It can also have some nasty side effects.

President Donald Trump on Saturday was administered a first dose of dexamethasone, a widely available steroid, to help fight his coronavirus infection, White House physician Sean Conley announced Sunday.

Trump was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday, just hours after revealing he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the virus.

During the course of his illness, Trump has received a single infusion of an experimental coronavirus treatment developed by the biotech company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals; at least two doses of remdesivir, an antiviral drug that the Food and Drug Administration has authorized for emergency use in hospitalized coronavirus patients; and at least one dose of dexamethasone.

Here’s what we know about dexamethasone:

Dexamethasone is a cheap, widely available steroid that provides relief for inflammation, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is used to treat several different conditions, including arthritis, allergic reactions, breathing problems and skin diseases.

Scientists in the U.K. announced in May that a clinical trial showed dexamethasone improved the chances of survival for critically ill COVID-19 patients.

The trial randomly assigned 2,104 patients to receive the drug and compared their experience with 4,321 patients who underwent normal treatment. The drug was administered either orally or intravenously.

Dexamethasone reduced deaths by 35% in patients who required breathing machines during their treatment and by 20% in those who only needed supplemental oxygen, according to the scientists.

The drug, however, did not appear to help less ill patients. In fact, patients who were given dexamethasone but were not receiving respiratory support died at a higher rate than patients who did not receive the steroid.

A member of staff at a pharmacy in London holds a packet of anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone, which has been hailed as a ground-breaking treatment for hospital patients seriously ill with COVID-19.
A member of staff at a pharmacy in London holds a packet of anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone, which has been hailed as a ground-breaking treatment for hospital patients seriously ill with COVID-19.
Yui Mok - PA Images via Getty Images

Medical experts have warned against using dexamethasone as a prophylactic measure or too early in the course of the illness. Steroids such as dexamethasone help block a body’s immune system response, which can have a negative impact on a coronavirus patient.

“In the early phase of the illness, the immune system is your friend,” Dr. Martin Landray, the study’s senior author and a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University, told The New York Times. “It’s fighting the virus, and dampening it is not a good idea.”

“In the later phase, the immune system is no longer your friend — it’s responsible for the lungs failing, and dampening it down with steroids helps the situation and improves the chance of survival,” he added.

Some of the most common side effects of dexamethasone are aggression, anxiety, irritability, mental depression, mood changes and trouble thinking, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Though Trump’s medical team said during a news conference Sunday that Trump is doing “very well” and that they hope to release him from the hospital “as early as tomorrow,” some medical experts have said the dexamethasone treatment suggests he may have a long road to recovery.

“It seems like Trump is stable, but remains at high risk,” Dr. Bob Wachter, chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, tweeted Sunday following the news conference.

Citing Trump’s two reported episodes of below-normal blood oxygen levels, Wachter said the optimism from the president’s doctors “are clearly at Trump’s direction.”

“No way he’s ready for discharge tomorrow,” Wachter tweeted Sunday.

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