A cheap and widely available drug can help save the lives of patients seriously ill with coronavirus.

What is the drug?

Dexamethasone is a steroid. A medicine that reduces inflammation by mimicking anti-inflammatory hormones produced by the body.

The low-dose steroid treatment dexamethasone is a major breakthrough in the fight against the deadly virus that has been hailed as a ground-breaking treatment for hospital patients seriously ill with Covid-19.

It cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth.

Had the drug had been used to treat patients in the UK from the start of the pandemic, up to 5,000 lives could have been saved, researchers say.

How does it work?

This drug works by dampening down the body’s immune system.

Coronavirus infection triggers inflammation as the body tries to fight it off.

But sometimes the immune system goes into overdrive and it’s this reaction that can prove fatal the very reaction designed to attack infection ends up attacking the body’s own cells. Dexamethasone calms this effect.

It’s only suitable for people who are already in the hospital and receiving oxygen or mechanical ventilation.

The drug does not work on people with milder symptoms, and suppressing their immune system at this point would not be helpful.

How widely available is the drug?

Dexamethasone is a low-cost drug that already exists and is in good supply.

The government says it has already stockpiled enough of the drug to treat 200,000 people, in anticipation of a good result from the trial.

In the US the drug will cost $7.59, 83 off the average retail price of $46.90, a day per patient, and the treatment lasts for up to 10 days.

How long does it take to work?

Dexamethasone normally takes 8-24 hours for the first effects to be apparent.

Other benefits of Dexamethasone

Dexamethasone is a steroid drug that has proven benefit in reducing the swelling (edema) caused by some brain tumours. Swelling associated with brain tumours may contribute to the symptoms produced by the tumour including headaches and neurological deficits (such as weakness and loss of speech). Steroids should, therefore, help to relieve some of these symptoms.

Side Effects occurring when using Dexamethasone

The following side effects are common (occurring in greater than 30%) for patients taking dexamethasone:
  • Increased appetite.
  • Irritability.
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • Swelling in your ankles and feet (fluid retention)
  • Heartburn.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Impaired wound healing.
  • Increased blood sugar levels.