Corticosteroids are a class of drug that lowers inflammation in the body. They also reduce immune system activity.
Because corticosteroids ease swelling, itching, redness, and allergic reactions, doctors often prescribe them to help treat diseases like:
Corticosteroids resemble cortisol, a hormone naturally produced by the body’s adrenal glands. The body needs cortisol to stay healthy. Cortisol is a major player in a wide range of processes in the body, including metabolism, immune response, and stress.
Doctors prescribe corticosteroids for a number of reasons, including:
- Addison’s disease. This occurs when your body doesn’t make enough cortisol. Corticosteroids can make up the difference.
- Organ transplants. Corticosteroids help suppress the immune system and reduce the likelihood of organ rejection.
- Inflammation. In cases when inflammation causes damage to important organs, corticosteroids can save lives. Inflammation occurs when the body’s white blood cells are mobilized to protect against infection and foreign substances.
- Autoimmune diseases. Sometimes the immune system doesn’t work correctly, and people develop inflammatory conditions that cause damage instead of protection.Corticosteroids decrease the inflammation and prevent this damage. They also affect how white blood cells work and reduce the activity of the immune system.
They’re often used to treat these conditions as well:
- hay fever
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- inflammatory bowel disease
- multiple sclerosis
Corticosteroids can be systemic or localized. Localized steroids target a specific part of the body. These can be applied through:
- skin creams
- eye drops
- ear drops
- inhalers to target the lungs
Systemic steroids move through the blood to assist more parts of the body. They can be delivered through oral medications, with an IV, or with a needle into a muscle.
Localized steroids are used to treat conditions like asthma and hives. Systemic steroids treat conditions such as lupus and multiple sclerosis.
There are a number of corticosteroids available. Some of the most common brand names include:
- Aristocort (topical)
- Decadron (oral)
- Mometasone (inhaled)
- Cotolone (injection)
Some side effects can occur with topical, inhaled, and injected steroids. However, most side effects come from oral steroids.
Side effects from inhaled corticosteroids can include:
- sore throat
- difficulty speaking
- minor nosebleeds
- oral thrush
Topical corticosteroids can lead to thin skin, acne, and red skin lesions. When injected, they can cause:
- loss of skin color
- high blood sugar
- facial flushing
Side effects from oral steroids may include:
- blurred vision
- water retention
- increased appetite and weight gain
- stomach irritation
- difficulty sleeping
- mood changes and mood swings
- thin skin and easy bruising
- high blood pressure
- muscle weakness
- increased growth of body hair
- susceptibility to infection
- worsening of diabetes
- delayed wound healing
- stomach ulcers
- Cushing syndrome
- stunted growth in children
Not everyone will develop side effects. The presence of side effects varies from person to person. High doses for long periods of time increases the likelihood of having side effects.
It’s important to talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of using this medication. If they’re used for a short period (from a few days to a few weeks), it’s possible to have no side effects.
Corticosteroids can be a life-changing or life-saving medication, but long-term use can cause health risks. Despite negative side effects, some conditions do require long-term use. Here are a few things to consider:
- Older peoplemight be more likely to develop issues with high blood pressure and osteoporosis. Women have a higher chance of developing this bone disease.
- Children may experience stunted growth. Corticosteroids can also cause measles or chickenpox infections that are more serious than those in children not taking them.
- Breastfeeding mothers should use steroids with caution. They may cause issues with growth or other effects for the baby.
Make sure to let your doctor know if you’ve had any negative reactions to a medicine before. Also tell your doctor about any allergies you may have.
Certain medical conditions may affect the use of this medication. Tell your doctor if you have any health conditions.
It’s particularly important to tell them if you have:
- HIV or AIDS
- herpes simplex infection of the eye
- stomach or intestinal problems
- high blood pressure
- a fungal infection or any other infection
- a disease of the heart, liver, thyroid, or kidney
- have had a recent surgery or serious injury
Corticosteroids can also alter the effects of other medications. However, the likelihood of interactions happening with steroid sprays or injections is low.
Be careful what you eat when taking this medication, too. Certain steroids shouldn’t be taken with food, as interactions may occur. Avoid taking this drug with grapefruit juice.
Tobacco and alcohol can also cause interactions with certain medications. Make sure to talk to your doctor about the effect these may have on corticosteroids.
The use of this medication may be the best option for your situation. While there are risks associated with corticosteroids, there are ways to minimize your side effects. Here are some tips to consider:
- Talk to your doctor about low or intermittent dosing.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices, like a healthy diet and exercising more often than not.
- Get a medical alert bracelet.
- Get regular checkups.
- Use local steroids if possible.
- Slowly taper dosage when stopping therapy if you’ve been using this medication for a long time. This allows your adrenal glands time to adjust.
- Eat a low-salt and/or potassium-rich diet.
- Monitor your blood pressure and bone density, and get treatment if needed.
Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory medications that can treat diseases like asthma, arthritis, and lupus. They can come with some serious side effects.
Make sure to talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of corticosteroids, other conditions or diseases you have, and ways to minimize side effects.