Chances are you or someone you know has used corticosteroids to treat a medical condition. But what exactly are corticosteroids?
What Are Corticosteroids?
Corticosteroids are synthetic drugs that mimic the action of cortisol, a hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands. This hormone is released during stressful situations and has quite a few roles in the body, including managing metabolism, reducing inflammation, increasing blood sugar and regulating blood pressure and sleep cycles.
Corticosteroids reduce activity and block production of substances from our immune system that can trigger allergic and other inflammatory disorders throughout the body. It’s important to note that these are not anabolic steroids, which are synthetic versions of male sex hormones and have been abused by some athletes.
Corticosteroids come in a variety of forms: pills, skin creams, eye drops, ear drops, nasal sprays, lung inhalers, by nebulizer and by injection.
What Do Corticosteroids Treat?
Corticosteroids are frequently used to treat disorders such as asthma, eczema and other skin conditions, arthritic conditions like lupus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, swimmer’s ear and numerous others. They can also be used to suppress the immune system in patients who received an organ transplant to help prevent rejection.
A few of the more common corticosteroids are prednisone, dexamethasone, prednisolone, budesonide, triamcinolone and betamethasone.
Corticosteroids have benefited patients with a variety of conditions. Your physician can give you guidance if a prescribed corticosteroid is an option for you depending on your illness.
[Read: How to Treat Seasonal Allergies.]
Corticosteroids Side Effects
Unfortunately, even with all their benefits, there can be significant risks. Side effects depend upon the length of time, dosage and type of corticosteroid used.
Here is a list of common side effects of corticosteroids:
— Weight gain.
— Increased appetite.
— Bone thinning.
— Mood swings.
— Easy bruising.
— Facial swelling.
— Increased body hair.
— Worsening or onset of diabetes.
— Worsening or onset of high blood pressure.
— Difficulty sleeping.
— Growth suppression in children.
These side effects and others vary among patients. A short course of oral corticosteroids for a rash is unlikely to cause issues, but the need for high doses for months or years to treat an autoimmune disease will likely lead to some of the side effects mentioned.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, if you and your physician determine that corticosteroids are required for your medical condition, it’s important that they monitor you closely while you are taking them, using the lowest possible dose to control the disease and discuss with you ways to help prevent side effects
Corticosteroids are commonly used in the management of allergic conditions including asthma. You may be prescribed a corticosteroid cream for eczema, which has only a mild risk of side effects. There are over-the-counter intranasal corticosteroids for hay fever, such as Flonase and Nasacort, that rarely have side effects as there is minimal systemic absorption. The same goes for the many inhaled corticosteroid preparations such as Symbicort, Advair and Flovent, that are used in the treatment of asthma and COPD.
A course of oral corticosteroids for several days is standard treatment for an asthma attack or flareup. Studies show that these “bursts” of corticosteroids can reduce the risk of an emergency department visit and hospitalization. Physicians used to believe that these short courses were safe. However, new studies show that, if the patient with asthma takes several of these “bursts” over a period of a few years, there can be a cumulative effect that may lead to some of the side effects mentioned.
Anyone with asthma should discuss with their board-certified allergist whether changes in their regular asthma medicines are needed to prevent asthma flare-ups and thus the need for oral corticosteroids.
Corticosteroids can be lifesaving and often are the only agent to provide treatment of a particular disease, but precautions should be taken to avoid serious side effects.
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