Also known as corticosteroids, steroids are an anti-inflammatory medication that is commonly used to treat a wide range of conditions and serve a lot of purposes.
Corticosteroids are different from the anabolic steroids that are used by body-builders and athletes to improve their physical performance. This type is commonly in the news.
The Types of Steroids
Most steroids are exclusively available via prescription from your doctor. However, there are a few forms such as the nasal spray or inhaler (below) that can be bought over the counter at a pharmacy or a shop.
As mentioned, steroids come in a variety of different forms for a variety of different purposes.
The most common and main types of steroids are as follows:
- Injections – such as methylprednisolone, which are injected into the joints, muscles or blood vessels. Steroids taken by injections can increase one’s risk of HIV or the hepatitis infection if they are not administered correctly with a clean, sterile needle.
- Tablets or liquids (typically in the form of a syrup) – such as prednisolone
- Inhalers or nasal sprays– such as fluticasone and beclomethasone
- Lotions, creams and gels – such as hydrocortisone
Uses for steroids
There are a number of conditions that steroids are beneficial in treating, these include:
- Hay fever
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Crohn’s disease, or other types of inflammatory bowel/digestive system diseases.
- Pain that is caused by a trapped or irritated nerve – such as sciatica
- Pain in the joints or muscles – for example, arthritis, tennis elbow and frozen shoulder.
Side effects of steroids
There do not tend to be significant side effects associated with taking steroids if they are taken in small doses or for a short period of time.
However, like with most medications there are some unpleasant side effects associated with steroids such as:
- An increased appetite
- Mood changes
- Insomnia or difficulty getting to sleep
These are most common with steroids taken in the form of tablets.
The good news is that the side effects tend to halt completely once you stop taking the medication. However, if you are experiencing side effects that you wish you were not, do not stop taking this medication until your doctor has told you it is okay to. The side effects can actually get worse if you do this due to potential withdrawal symptoms.
How do steroids work?
Steroids are essentially man-made versions of hormones. These hormones that they replica are usually produced by the adrenal glands – these are two small glands that are found just above the kidneys.
If taken in a higher dose that the amount that is usually produced by the body, steroids actually reduce redness, swelling and inflammation. This is why steroids are prescribed for conditions such as eczema and asthma.
Moreover, steroids are also used to reduce the activity of the immune system – the body’s natural defence system which fights against illnesses and infections. Therefore, steroids can help treat autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus which are cause by the immune system malfunctioning. The immune system in these cases attacks the body by mistake.
Anabolic steroids are used and often abused by athletes in the form of testosterone, a male hormone. It is true that both men and women produce testosterone, but men produce much higher levels of it.
These types of steroids are used to build up muscle and enhance an athletes performance. However, they are banned in all competitive sports and the Olympics.
They are also illegal with a prescription from a doctor for treating a medical condition. It is actually illegal to possess, sell and/or distribute anabolic steroids. For a first time offence, you can face a maximum penalty of one year in prison and an £1,000 fine to pay. Second offences are double this penalty.
Anabolic steroids are extremely powerful hormones and they can heavily affect the entire body. Some of the side effects are common to all people who take anabolic steroids. Further side effects are specifically related to a person’s biological sex and/or age.
Side effects specific to women may include:
- Growing excessive amounts of facial and/or body hair
- Find their voices become deeper
- Have problems with menstruation – for example, irregular periods.
- See a reduction in the size of their breasts
- Have a masculinized female feotus
Side effects specific to men may include:
- The developing of breasts
- Have a decreased sperm count
- Become infertile
- Become impotent or have painful erections
- Find that their testicles are decreasing in size
Side effects which are relevant to both men and women:
- Oily scalp and/or skin
- Start balding
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
- Have a tendon rupture
- Heart attacks
- Have an abnormally enlarged heart
- Have mood swings and unexplained rages
- Increase their risk of developing liver disease and/or cancer of the liver
- High levels of cholesterol
- Suffer from delusions
Teenagers may be effected by:
- A stunt in the growth of bones, resulting in a short height
- Female teenagers may suffer from long term masculinization of the body and face.