My patient with COPD on prednisone with recurrent pneumonia has a low serum IgG level.  Can corticosteroids lower serum immunoglobulin levels?

Yes! Both exogenous and endogenous hypercortisolism may be associated with a drop in serum immunoglobulin levels, particularly IgG, which may persist even after discontinuation of steroid treatment.1-4 This means that a low serum IgG level in a patient on corticosteroids should be interpreted with caution and may not necessarily suggest primary antibody deficiency.

Although some early studies did not find a significant impact of corticosteroids on immunoglobulin levels, several subsequent studies found otherwise.  A 1978 study involving atopic asthmatic patients (averaging 16.8 mg prednisone daily) found that mean serum IgG significantly decreased (-22%) with milder drop in IgA levels (-10%) and no drop in serum IgM levels.2 Of interest, IgE level increased significantly initially but later dropped as well. More importantly, mean serum IgG levels remained significantly decreased an average of 22 days after corticosteroids were discontinued.

More recently, in a study involving patients with giant cell arteritis and polymyalgia rheumatica on corticosteroids, 58% developed antibody deficiency with the great majority involving IgG, either alone or along with other immunoglobulins.3 The reduction of IgG persisted even after discontinuation of corticosteroids in nearly 50% of patients, and observed in nearly one-quarter of patients for at least 6 months! Whether low serum immunoglobulins due to corticosteroids alone significantly increase susceptibility to infections is unclear, however.

In our patient with COPD on prednisone, if serum IgG level is found to be low and a primary antibody deficiency is still suspected, a functional assessment of the antibody production after active immunization (eg, polysaccharide pneumococcal vaccine, tetanus toxoid) may be necessary. 1 An adequate antibody response to active immunization makes primary immunodeficiency unlikely. 


Bonus Pearl: Did you know that corticosteroid-induced hypogammaglobulinemia may be in part related to reduced IgG production as well as an increase in IgG catabolism?1,4

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  1. Sarcevic J, Cavelti-Weder C, Berger CT, et al. Case report-secondary antibody deficiency due to endogenous hypercortisolism. Frontiers in Immunology 2020;11:1435.
  2. Settipane GA, Pudupakkam RK, McGowan JH. Corticosteroid effect on immunoglobulins. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1978;62: 162-6.
  3. Wirsum C, Glaser C, Gutenberger S, et al. Secondary antibody deficiency in glucocorticoid therapy clearly differs from primary antibody deficiency. J Clin Immunol 2016;36:406-12.
  4. McMillan R, Longmire R, Yelenosky R. The effect of corticosteroids on human IgG synthesis. J Immunol 1976;116:1592-1595.

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, their affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

My patient with COPD on prednisone with recurrent pneumonia has a low serum IgG level.  Can corticosteroids lower serum immunoglobulin levels?