Coronavirus treatment: What is dexamethasone?

Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation
23 June 2020
Next review due June 2023

This article was written in line with the best available evidence and guidelines at the time of publishing. Keep up-to-date with the latest guidelines on coronavirus at

You might have heard in the news that a medicine is being used to treat people who have coronavirus. This drug is called dexamethasone, and here I’ll explain what it is and how much we know about it so far.

What is dexamethasone?

Dexamethasone is a type of medicine known as a corticosteroid. It’s already used by doctors to treat conditions like asthma and arthritis because it’s useful for reducing inflammation in the body. Because it has been around for a long time, dexamethasone is easy and cheap for hospitals to buy in most countries. In the UK, we already have supplies of dexamethasone available for hospitals to use.

How does it help people with coronavirus?

Dexamethasone seems to improve the survival rates of hospital patients with coronavirus who need:
  • extra oxygen to help them breathe
  • a ventilator to breathe for them

For people on ventilators, the risk of dying from coronavirus was 35 per cent lower. For people who only needed extra oxygen, the risk of dying was reduced by a fifth.

There is no proven benefit to anybody else, even if they are in hospital.

How has this treatment been discovered?

These results are from a study that has been happening since March called ‘The Recovery Study’. It tests different medicines and whether they can help hospital patients who have coronavirus. At the moment, it’s the only study to find a medicine that seems to improve some people’s chances of surviving COVID-19.

Will I be prescribed dexamethasone?

Dexamethasone seems to only be effective in very specific circumstances. It’s not helpful for most people who catch coronavirus, even if they feel very ill. You will probably only be given dexamethasone if you:

  • become so unwell with COVID-19 that you are taken to hospital
  • need extra oxygen to help you breathe
  • need a ventilator to breathe for you

What’s important to consider?

As this is a new way to treat people who have COVID-19, there may be things that we don’t know about it yet. As the pandemic continues there will be more research carried out on a range of medicines, including this one.

Dexamethasone is not a cure for coronavirus. Some people who take it still won’t get better.

Dexamethasone can’t prevent you from catching coronavirus. The best was to stay safe is to wash your hands regularly, practice social distancing when you can, and wear a face mask when appropriate.

Luke James
Dr Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation

    • WHO welcomes preliminary results about dexamethasone use in treating critically ill COVID-19 patients. World Health Organization., Published 16 June 2020
    • Dexamethasone. BNF British National Formulary., accessed 18 June
    • World first coronavirus treatment approved for NHS use by government. Department of Health and Social Care., updated 18 June 2020
    • First drug to reduce mortality in hospitalised patients with respiratory complications of COVID-19 found. National Institute for Health Research., published 16 June 2020
    • Low-cost dexamethasone reduces death by up to one third in hospitalised patients with severe respiratory complications of COVID-19., published 16 June 2020

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