Dexamethasone in Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Risk Factor: C*
Class: Hormones / Adrenal agents

Contents of this page:
Fetal Risk Summary
Breast Feeding Summary
Questions and Answers

Fetal Risk Summary

Although most sources have not linked the use of dexamethasone with congenital defects, four large epidemiologic studies have found positive associations between systemic corticosteroids and nonsyndromic orofacial clefts. Specific corticosteroids were not identified in three of these studies (see Hydrocortisone for details), but dexamethasone and other agents were listed in a 1999 study discussed below.

In a case-control study, the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program evaluated the association between selected congenital anomalies and the use of corticosteroids 1 month before to 3 months after conception (periconceptional period) (1). Case infants or fetal deaths diagnosed with orofacial clefts, conotruncal defects, neural tubal defects (NTD), and limb anomalies were identified from a total of 552,601 births that occurred from 1987 through the end of 1989. Controls, without birth defects, were selected from the same database. Following exclusion of known genetic syndromes, mothers of case and control infants were interviewed by telephone, an average of 3.7 years (cases) or 3.8 years (controls) after delivery, to determine various exposures during the periconceptional period. The number of interviews completed were orofacial cleft case mothers (N=662, 85% of eligible), conotruncal case mothers (N=207, 87%), NTD case mothers (N=265, 84%), limb anomaly case mothers (N=165, 82%), and control mothers (N=734, 78%) (1). Orofacial clefts were classified into four phenotypic groups: isolated cleft lip with or without cleft palate (ICLP, N=348), isolated cleft palate (ICP, N=141), multiple cleft lip with or without cleft palate (MCLP, N=99), and multiple cleft palate (MCP, N=74). A total of 13 mothers reported using corticosteroids during the periconceptional period for a wide variety of indications. Six case mothers of ICLP and 3 of ICP used corticosteroids (unspecified corticosteroid N=1, prednisone N=2, cortisone N=3, triamcinolone acetonide N=1, dexamethasone N=1, and cortisone plus prednisone N=1). One case mother of an infant with NTD used cortisone and an injectable unspecified corticosteroid, and three controls used corticosteroids (hydrocortisone N=1 and prednisone N=2). The odds ratio for corticosteroid use and ICLP was 4.3 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.117.2), whereas the odds ratio for ICP and corticosteroid use was 5.3 (95% CI 1.126.5). No increased risks were observed for the other anomaly groups. Commenting on their results, the investigators thought that recall bias was unlikely because they did not observe increased risks for other malformations, and it was also unlikely that the mothers would have known of the suspected association between corticosteroids and orofacial clefts (1).

Maternal free estriol and cortisol are significantly depressed after dexamethasone therapy, but the effects of these changes on the fetus have not been studied (2,3 and 4).

Dexamethasone has been used in patients with premature labor at about 2634 weeks' gestation to stimulate fetal lung maturation (5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14 and 15). Although this therapy is supported by many clinicians, its use is still controversial since the beneficial effects of steroids are greatest in singleton pregnancies with female fetuses (16,17,18 and 19). These benefits are: Reduction in incidence of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) Decreased severity of RDS if it occurs Decreased incidence of and mortality from intracranial hemorrhage Increased survival of premature infants Toxicity in the fetus and newborn following the use of dexamethasone is rare.

In studies of women with premature rupture of the membranes (PROM), administration of corticosteroids does not always reduce the frequency of RDS or perinatal mortality (20,21 and 22). In addition, an increased risk of maternal infection has been observed in patients with PROM treated with corticosteroids (21,22). A recent report, however, found no difference in the incidence of maternal complications between treated and nontreated patients (23).

Dexamethasone crosses the placenta to the fetus (24,25). The drug is partially metabolized (54%) by the perfused placenta to its inactive 11-ketosteroid derivative, more so than betamethasone, but the difference is not statistically significant (25).

Leukocytosis has been observed in infants exposed antenatally to dexamethasone (26,27). The white blood cell counts returned to normal in about a week.

The use of corticosteroids, including dexamethasone, for the treatment of asthma during pregnancy has not been related to a significantly increased risk of maternal or fetal complications (28). A slight increase in the number of premature births was found, but it could not be determined whether this was an effect of the corticosteroids. An earlier study also recorded a shortening of gestation with chronic corticosteroid use (29).

In Rh-sensitized women, the use of dexamethasone may have prevented intrauterine fetal deterioration and the need for fetal transfusion (30). Five women, in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters, were treated with 24 mg of the steroid weekly for 27 weeks resulting, in each case, in a live newborn.

Dexamethasone, 4 mg/day for 15 days, was administered to a woman late in the 3rd trimester for the treatment of autoimmune thrombocytopenic purpura (31). Therapy was given in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent fetal/neonatal thrombocytopenia due to the placental transfer of antiplatelet antibody. Platelet counts in the newborn were 38,00049,000/mm3, but the infant made an uneventful recovery.

The use of dexamethasone for the pharmacologic suppression of the fetal adrenal gland has been described in two women with 21-hydroxylase deficiency (32,33). This deficiency results in the overproduction of adrenal androgens and the virilization of female fetuses. Dexamethasone, in divided doses of 1 mg/day, was administered from early in the 1st trimester (5th week and 10th week) to term. Normal female infants resulted from both pregnancies.

Although human studies have usually shown a benefit, the use of corticosteroids in animals has been associated with several toxic effects (34,35): Reduced fetal head circumference Reduced fetal adrenal weight Increased fetal liver weight Reduced fetal thymus weight Reduced placental weight Fortunately, none of these effects has been observed in human investigations. Long-term follow-up evaluations of children exposed in utero to dexamethasone have shown no adverse effects from this exposure (36,37).

[*Risk Factor D if used in 1st trimester.]

Breast Feeding Summary

No reports describing the use of dexamethasone during lactation have been located. The molecular weight (about 516) is low enough for passage into breast milk. Moreover, trace amounts of other corticosteroids are excreted into milk (e.g., see Hydrocortisone and Prednisone), and the excretion of dexamethasone into milk should be expected.


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