By Mayo Clinic staff
Corticosteroid medications, including cortisone, hydrocortisone and prednisone, have great potential in the treatment of a variety of conditions, from rashes to lupus to asthma. But corticosteroids also carry a risk of side effects. Working with your doctor, you can take steps to reduce these medications’ side effects so that the benefits of treatment outweigh the risks.
How do corticosteroids work?
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Corticosteroids mimic the effects of cortisone and hydrocortisone — hormones produced by your adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys. Corticosteroids help control:
Corticosteroid medications are chemically similar to natural steroids and duplicate their actions. When prescribed in doses that exceed your body’s usual levels, corticosteroids suppress inflammation, which can reduce the signs and symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and asthma.
How are corticosteroids used?
Dozens of corticosteroid medications are available today. The drugs are front-line treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, asthma, allergies and many other conditions. They are also used to treat life-threatening conditions such as Addison’s disease, in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough steroids, and help prevent organ rejection in transplant recipients.
You can take corticosteroids:
What side effects can corticosteroids cause?
Like all medications, corticosteroids carry a risk of side effects. Some side effects can cause serious health problems. When you know what side effects are possible, you can take steps to control them.
Side effects of oral corticosteroids
Because oral corticosteroids affect your entire body instead of a particular area, this form is the most likely to cause significant side effects. Side effects depend on the dose of medication you receive. Within days or weeks of starting oral therapy, you may have an increased risk of:
When taking oral corticosteroids longer term, you may experience:
Side effects of inhaled corticosteroids
When using inhaled corticosteroids, some of the drug may deposit in your mouth and throat instead of making it to your lungs. This can cause coughing, hoarseness, dry mouth and sore throat. Gargling and rinsing your mouth with water and spitting it out after each inhalation may reduce such effects. Although some researchers have speculated that these drugs slow growth rates in children who use them for asthma, studies show that they don’t affect their final adult height.
Side effects of topical corticosteroids
Topical corticosteroids can lead to thin skin, red lesions and acne.
Side effects of injected corticosteroids
Injected corticosteroids can cause side effects near the site of the injection. Side effects may include pain, infection, shrinking of soft tissue and loss of color in the skin. Doctors usually limit corticosteroid injections to no more than three or four a year.
Reduce your risk of corticosteroid side effects
Despite their side effects, corticosteroid drugs remain an important medical treatment. To get the most benefit with the least amount of risk:
The greatest risk to your health during corticosteroid withdrawal is the inability of your body to respond to the acute physical stress of serious illness, injury, surgery or general anesthesia. This can lead to shock and even death. Because additional corticosteroids can be given to you in preparation for surgery, it’s important that you tell all your doctors if you have taken corticosteroids during the preceding year.
Weigh the risks and benefits of corticosteroids
Corticosteroids are neither as awful nor as miraculous as they’ve been portrayed. Although they may cause a range of side effects, they may also relieve the inflammation, pain and discomfort of many different diseases and conditions. If you work with your doctor to make choices that minimize side effects, you may achieve significant benefits with a reduced risk of such problems.
July 7, 2009
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