What You Need to Know About Taking Corticosteroids
Corticosteroids are powerful drugs that can greatly improve your life if you have certain illnesses. But you also need to know the risks.

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Picture of woman taking medication What You Need to Know About Taking Corticosteroids

If you have ulcerative colitis or severe asthma, corticosteroid medicines, commonly called steroids, may be a blessing. These fast-acting anti-inflammatory medicines work well to treat a number of illnesses. They should not be confused with anabolic steroids used to build muscle.

Steroids come in many forms, including pills, shots, inhalants, enemas, and creams. Side effects happen more often if you take them by mouth or inject them into a vein. These forms of the medicine spread more easily through the body than steroids that are inhaled or injected into a muscle or joint. The risks often rise the longer you take them and if you take a large amount.

Corticosteroid side effects
Some people have mood changes within the first few weeks of starting these medicines. Other side effects that may appear soon after taking steroids include:

  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain, mostly around the face and midsection
  • Anxiety, irritability, depression, memory loss, and trouble sleeping

Taking steroids for a long time can causes side effects such as:

  • Infections and slow wound healing
  • Weakened bones or osteoporosis. It's common to lose some bone mass within the first 6 months of taking the drug
  • Slow recovery from illness
  • Loss of muscle and weakness
  • High blood sugar levels, which can make diabetes worse
  • High blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, and heart disease
  • Upset stomach, ulcer, and bleeding
  • Eye problems such as cataracts, glaucoma, or blurred vision

Tips for using corticosteroids safely
Doctors usually limit steroids to short-term use only at the lowest possible dose. Your doctor may suggest that you take the medicine every other day to lower risks. Many newer steroids seem to cause fewer side effects but aren't right for everyone.

Other ways to reduce your risk of side effects are:

  • Take the medicine early in the morning unless your doctor tells you something else.
  • Take your medicine with food or after a full meal to help you avoid an upset stomach or heartburn. An over-the-counter antacid or a medicine ordered by your doctor for acid reflux may help.
  • Prevent bone loss by taking extra calcium and vitamin D if needed, and doing weight-bearing exercise. Your doctor may order another medicine to help keep your bones healthy.
  • Tell your doctor if you notice memory loss or extreme mood changes. Your doctor may want to change your treatment.
  • Ask your doctor about getting a flu shot and a pneumonia shot.
  • Eat meals that are low in salt to keep fluid from building up in your body and causing high blood pressure.
  • Never change your dose or stop taking this drug without talking to your doctor. It may harm your health.

See your doctor for regular checkups so side effects can be spotted before they become serious. Ask your doctor if you should see someone who specializes in blood sugar or vision problems if these side effects occur.

Stopping corticosteroids
Do not suddenly quit taking a steroid medication. When it is time to stop, your doctor will taper the dose. Even if you have taken steroids for only a few weeks, you may have problems if you stop too quickly. You might feel tired or have joint pain, stiffness, aching, nausea, headache, or fever.

Steroids are usually ordered at the smallest effective dose for the shortest period of time. Side effects like weight gain and mood changes usually go away once the medicine can be safely stopped. To avoid steroid side effects, newer medicines may be tried if you need long-term treatment for a chronic illness.

By Eve Glicksman, Staff Writer
Created on 03/18/2011
Updated on 03/20/2011
Sources:
  • Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. Corticosteroids.
  • Brown ES. Effects of glucocorticoids on mood, memory, and the hippocampus. Treatment and preventive therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2009;1179(1):41-55.
  • Currie GP, Lee DKC, Lipworth BJ. ABC of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: pharmacological management - oral treatment. British Medical Journal. 2006;332(7556):1497-1499.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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