What are steroids anyway, and what do they do?
Why are some ok and others not ok? What are their effects and side effects? Are they dangerous?
This is the article that will answer your questions.
What are steroids?
There are different types of steroids but they tend to get tarred with the same brush: people think ‘steroids = bad/I’ll put on weight/drug abuse etc’.
These different types are anabolic steroids and corticosteroids.
Anabolic steroids are man-made chemicals related to male sex hormones. Their official name is anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS). The term anabolic refers to their muscle-building ability and androgenic means ‘increasing male characteristics’.
These are the steroids that some body builders and athletes use (illegally) to improve performance. They are taken in very much higher doses than the steroids prescribed for medical problems (see below).
Anabolic steroids are often taken in short bursts (so-called ‘cycling’) so that users can avoid side effects. However the side effects and the dose a person needs to take to avoid them varies a lot between individuals. The side effects of anabolic steroids include:
- Breast development in men
- Shrinking of the testicles in men
- Voice deepening in women
- Body hair growth in women
- Male-pattern baldness in women
- Skin cysts
- Heart problems, including heart attacks
- Increased blood pressure that can lead to strokes
- Liver disease including liver cancer
- Kidney failure
- Mood swings and violent behavior
- Stunted growth in adolescents.
Anabolic steroids can be addictive because of the symptoms that people experience when trying to stop using them. These include mood swings, tiredness, restlessness, poor sleep and reduced sex drive, as well as steroid cravings.
Corticosteroids are medically prescribed as a treatment for many medical problems.
They are safe when used as prescribed and the patient is monitored by his/her health care professional.
They can be taken in tablet form, liquids, creams for the skin and in inhalers for lung conditions.
Examples of the problems a doctor might prescribe these for include:
- Crohn’s Disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases
- Dermatitis and other skin conditions
- Some cancers
- Addison’s Disease, where a patient has stopped making their own steroids.
Corticosteroids are made naturally in the body in the adrenal glands. The body has a natural feedback mechanism so that at any time of the day or night, and in whatever physical conditions we find ourselves, it makes the right amount of steroid.
Corticosteroids are essential for life – you cannot survive without them and they have many functions in the body.
When they’re prescribed as a treatment their main role is to reduce inflammation. For example if you have an asthma inhaler with a steroid in it, then it reduces the swelling in the lung’s tiny air tubes that would otherwise block those tubes.
You may need to take steroid tablets as well as the inhaler after a flare-up of your condition (see the list above) and/or take them continually at a low dose to keep it under control.
Taking corticosteroids under the guidance of your medical professional is safe and the best management for your condition. They do have some side effects that your doctor will monitor and help you manage.
What are the side effects of taking steroids for a medical condition?
Side effects are most common when a patient takes steroids at high doses for a prolonged period.
- Osteoporosis – thinning of the bones.
- Weight gain
- Increased chance of infection
- High blood pressure
- Increased blood sugar in people with diabetes
- Skin problems such as poor healing, thin skin and bruising
- Mood changes
- Muscle weakness
- Greater risk of stomach and duodenal ulcers
- Greater risk of cataracts in the eyes
Tips for people taking corticosteroids.
- Never stop your steroids suddenly. Your doctor will prescribe a reducing dose to wean you off them. Taking high doses of steroids switches off the body’s own steroid-making ability. Reducing the dose slowly allows this to kick in again.
- Don’t take painkillers like aspirin or ibuprofen while you’re taking steroids. This can increase the risk of a stomach or duodenal ulcer.
- Do carry a steroid card or MedicAlert bracelet if you’re on steroids for a long time. This alerts medical professionals that you must have steroids if you are sick/injured and unable to tell them yourself.
- Do tell your doctor if you have/have had a stomach or duodenal ulcer.
- Do talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have about your treatment.
Are steroids safe?
Anabolic steroids are unregulated and taken at very high doses, so even used on a ‘cycling’ basis (ie used intermittently) they are unsafe and can have long-lasting and sometimes life threatening side effects.
Corticosteroids are prescribed by doctors and nurses for medical conditions. Sometimes the need for these meds is so urgent that it will save life. So, while they have side effects, they are safe when used by people who need them and who are monitored by their medical professionals.