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Hypocortisolaemia and adrenocortical responsiveness at onset of septic shock



To characterise the plasma cortisol profile and adreno-cortial responsiveness (short Synacthen test) of patients in septic shock.


Retrospective assessment using case-notes and ICU charts.


University teaching hospital ICU.


68 septic shock patients with plasma cortisol and/or short Synacthen test measured at ICU-admission or onset of shock post ICU-admission. Patients were identified from a total population of 155 patients who had PCL and/or SST measured over a 4.5 year period.



Measurements and results

Patients with septic shock had a plasma cortisol ranging from 210–8900 nmol/l and mortality of 56%. There were 22 (32%) below (low) and 46 (68%) above (high) a ‘critical’ plasma cortisol of 500 nmol/l. Using stepwise logistic regression, mortality was adequately predicted by and increased with, increasing plasma cortisol and onset of shock remote from ICU-admission. Short Synacthen tests were available in 33 patients: 11 responders (cortisol increment >200 nmol/l above baseline 30 min after 0.25 mg intravenous Synacthen) and 22 hypo-responders. Mortality in patients was adequately predicted by and increased with a decrease in cortisol increment post-Synacthen. Thirteen patients (plasma cortisol 606±[SD] 297 nmol/l) had complete haemodynamic profiles before inotropic therapy; no relationship was demonstrated between plasma cortisol and circulatory variables. Follow-up revealed no cases of Addison's disease.


In septic shock, ‘hypocortisolaemia’ is not uncommon and does not predict a high mortality; adrenocortical hypo-responsiveness may be associated with poor outcome.

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Correspondence to J. L. Moran.

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Moran, J.L., Chapman, M.J., O'Fathartaigh, M.S. et al. Hypocortisolaemia and adrenocortical responsiveness at onset of septic shock. Intensive Care Med 20, 489–495 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01711901

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Key words

  • Cortisol
  • Septic shock
  • Hypoadrenalism
  • Inotropes
  • Haemodynamics
  • Stepwise logistic regression