Steroids (short for corticosteroids) are synthetic drugs that closely resemble cortisol, a hormone that your body produces naturally. Steroids work by decreasing inflammation and reducing the activity of the immune system. They are used to treat a variety of inflammatory diseases and conditions.
Types of steroids
Steroids come in many different forms.
The main types are:
- tablets, syrups and liquids – such as prednisolone
- inhalers and nasal sprays – such as beclometasone and fluticasone
- injections (given into joints, muscles or blood vessels) – such as methylprednisolone
- creams, lotions and gels – such as hydrocortisone skin cream
Most steroids are only available on prescription, but a few (such as some creams or nasal sprays) can be bought from pharmacies and shops.
Side effects of steroids
Steroids do not tend to cause significant side effects if they’re taken for a short time or at a low dose.
But sometimes they can cause unpleasant side effects, such as an increased appetite, mood changes and difficulty sleeping. This is most common with steroid tablets.
The side effects will usually pass once you finish the treatment, but do not stop taking your medicine without speaking to your doctor. Stopping a prescribed course of medicine can cause further unpleasant side effects (withdrawal symptoms).
Read more about:
- side effects of steroid tablets
- side effects of steroid inhalers
- side effects of steroid nasal sprays
- side effects of steroid injections
- side effects of steroid creams
You can report any suspected side effect to the Yellow Card Scheme.
Uses for steroids
Steroids can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including:
- asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- hay fever
- hives and eczema
- painful joints or muscles – such as arthritis, tennis elbow and frozen shoulder
- pain caused by an irritated or trapped nerve – such as sciatica
- inflammatory bowel disease – such as Crohn’s disease
- multiple sclerosis (MS)
How steroids work
Steroids are a man-made version of hormones normally produced by the adrenal glands which are 2 small glands found above the kidneys.
When taken in doses higher than the amount your body normally produces, steroids reduce redness and swelling (inflammation). This can help with inflammatory conditions such as asthma and eczema.
Steroids also reduce the activity of the immune system, which is the body’s natural defence against illness and infection.
This can help treat autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, which are caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the body.
Who Should Not Take Steroids?
Steroids, as with other drugs, are not recommended for everyone. In general, people with the following conditions should not take steroids:
How Do I Know If Steroid Treatment Is Right for Me?
The decision to prescribe steroids is always made on an individual basis. Your doctor will consider your age, your overall health, and other drugs you are taking. Your doctor also will make sure you understand the potential benefits and risks of steroids before you start taking them.