Many conditions may require your doctor to put you on a course of steroids. However, these drugs are notorious for their side effects. So what exactly are they? Are these drugs life-saving or life-altering? What happens if you have to be on steroids for a long time? Here is a brief discussion to help you decide.

What are steroids?

Steroids include a group of naturally occurring hormones that play several important roles in our body. Broadly, man-made steroids are of two types: corticosteroids and anabolic steroids. The first group includes chemicals similar to the hormones aldosterone, which balances electrolytes in the body, and cortisol, which is involved in maintaining blood pressure, and also suppress inflammation.

Anabolic steroids or androgens, regulate the levels of testosterone in both men and women. There are few conditions in which they are prescribed, but may be more fresh in public memory for their abuse by athletes.

What conditions do steroids help in?

Commercially available preparations include those that can be taken by various methods – via inhalation, ingestion, topically or injections. Different strengths and chemical compositions exist, that have their intended uses. Some of the conditions in which steroids, particularly corticosteroids, help are:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Rashes and skin conditions like eczema
  • Vasculitis and other auto-immune conditions
  • Severe allergies and anaphylactic shock

Steroids can have dramatic and life-saving results. However, long-standing use can lead to several serious side effects and thus they should never be used without doctors’ orders.

What are the risks of long-term steroid use?

Depending on the dosage, route of administration and duration, steroids can pose a variety of problems. Oral steroids tend to cause complications, whereas inhalational and topical preparations tend to have minimal side effects. Complications include:

  • Glaucoma
  • Cataract
  • High blood pressure
  • Fluid retention and Swelling of legs
  • Thinning bones (osteoporosis) and fractures
  • Thin skin, easy bruising and slow healing of wounds
  • Weight gain, especially around the waist
  • High blood sugar
  • Liver damage
  • Depression
  • Acne
  • Increased risk of infections

How do I reduce chances of side effects?

Usage should be only by doctor’s prescription. In addition,

  • Minimize use of oral steroids and opt for other preparations if possible
  • Use steroids intermittently or at low doses
  • Follow up regularly
  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine in between and during treatment to decrease your dependence on steroids.
  • Be on a lookout for side effects and stop treatment temporarily or treat the adverse effects as required.

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