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Steroids for improving recovery following tonsillectomy in children

  • Review
  • Intervention




Tonsillectomy continues to be one of the most common surgical procedures performed worldwide. Despite advances in anesthetic and surgical techniques, post-tonsillectomy morbidity remains a significant clinical problem.


To assess the clinical efficacy of a single intra-operative dose of dexamethasone in reducing post-tonsillectomy morbidity.

Search strategy

We searched the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (Issue 1, 2002), MEDLINE (from 1966 - February 2002), EMBASE (from 1974 - February 2002) and reference lists of relevant articles. We contacted leading experts for information on any relevant unpublished data.

Selection criteria

Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of a single dose of intravenous, intra-operative corticosteroid for pediatric patients (age < 18 years) who underwent tonsillectomy or adenotonsillectomy were included.

Data collection and analysis

Data regarding the primary outcome measures and measurement tools were extracted by the first author from the published studies. Data regarding study design, patient ages, procedures performed, dose of corticosteroid and method of delivery, as well as methodologic quality were also recorded by the first author. When data were missing from the original publications, the authors were contacted for more information. Data analysis was performed with a random effects model, using the RevMan 4.1 software developed by the Cochrane Collaboration.

Main results

Children receiving a single intra-operative dose of dexamethasone (dose range = 0.15 to 1.0 mg/kg; maximum dose range = 8 to 25 mg) were two times less likely to vomit in the first 24 hours than children receiving placebo (RR = 0.54, CI95 = 0.42, 0.69; p < 0.00001). Routine use in four children would be expected to result in one less patient experiencing post-tonsillectomy emesis (RD = -0.25, CI95 = -0.37, -0.13; p = 0.00004). Additionally, children receiving dexamethasone were more likely to advance to a soft/solid diet on post-tonsillectomy day 1 (RR = 1.69, CI95 = 1.02, 2.79; p = 0.04) than those receiving placebo. Due to missing data and varied outcome measurement tools, pain could not be meaningfully analyzed as a distinct outcome measure.

Authors' conclusions

The evidence suggests that a single intravenous dose of dexamethasone is an effective, relatively safe and inexpensive treatment for reducing morbidity from pediatric tonsillectomy. No adverse events attributable to dexamethasone were reported in these trials. Additionally, in our 10-year experience of routine use of a single intravenous dose of dexamethasone during pediatric tonsillectomy, there have been no attributable, adverse events. Lastly, we found no reports in the literature of complications from use of a single intravenous dose of corticosteroid during pediatric tonsillectomy.

Plain language summary

A single dose of corticosteroids while on the operating table could prevent post-operative vomiting for many children having their tonsils removed, without adverse effects.

After children have a tonsillectomy or adenotonsillectomy (surgery to remove the adenoids and/or tonsils), pain, nausea, vomiting, and delays to return to eating are common. The corticosteroid drug, dexamethasone, is sometimes given in a single intravenous dose (through the veins) during surgery to try to prevent vomiting after the operation. The review of trials found that a dose of corticosteroid during tonsillectomy or adenotonsillectomy can prevent vomiting for one out of every four children who gets the drug. Children also return to a normal diet more quickly, and there appear to be no serious adverse effects.