Corticosteroids (steroids)

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Corticosteroids are often known as steroids. They’re an anti-inflammatory medicine and are used for a wide range of conditions.

What are corticosteroids used for?

Corticosteroids are used to treat conditions like:

Steroid cards

If you’re prescribed a steroid, your healthcare professional may give you a steroid card to keep with you. A steroid card has information about your medicine and dose in case of emergency.

Types of corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are available in different forms, including:

  • tablets (oral steroids) – the most powerful type of steroid medication and affects the whole body
  • injections – which can be into blood vessels, joints or muscles
  • inhalers – like mouth or nasal sprays
  • lotions, gels or creams (topical steroids)
  • enema or suppository – which are inserted into the rectum

Some types of steroids may not be suitable for you if you have certain health conditions, or an ongoing infection. Your healthcare professional can talk about this with you.

Possible side effects

Corticosteroids are powerful medications that can sometimes have side effects.

The risk of experiencing side effects depends on:

  • the type of steroid
  • dose
  • length of treatment
  • age

Read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine for advice on side effects. Discuss any concerns or queries with your pharmacist or GP.

Let your pharmacist or GP know if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to steroids.

If you have troublesome side effects, don’t stop taking your medication until your doctor says it’s safe to do so. This is because you may experience withdrawal effects.

Your dose may need to be reduced slowly over a few weeks or months. If you’ve been taking corticosteroids for a while, you may also need tests before you stop taking them.

Side effects of steroid inhalers

Inhaled steroids usually have few or no side effects if they’re used at normal doses. But, they can sometimes cause:

Side effects of steroid injections

Steroids that are injected into muscles and joints may cause some pain and swelling at the the injection area. But, this should pass within a few days.

Steroid injections can also cause muscle or tendon weakness. This means you may be advised to rest the treated area for a few days after the injection. Other possible side effects in the area where the injection is given can include:

  • infections
  • blushing
  • thinning and lightening of the skin
Side effects of steroid tablets

Steroid tablets that are taken for a short period of time are unlikely to cause side effects.

It’s sometimes necessary for steroid tablets to be taken for longer periods. In these cases, you may be more likely to develop troublesome side effects.

Steroid tablets taken for longer than 3 weeks can cause:

  • increased appetite – which may lead to weight gain if you find it difficult to control what you eat
  • acne
  • rapid mood swings and mood changes – becoming aggressive, irritable and short-tempered with people
  • thin skin that bruises easily
  • muscle weakness
  • delayed wound healing
  • Cushing’s syndrome – causes acne, fatty deposits in the face and stretch marks across the body
  • weakening of the bones (osteoporosis)
  • diabetes (or they may worsen existing diabetes)
  • high blood pressure
  • glaucoma and cataracts (eye conditions)
  • stomach ulcers
  • mental health problems – like depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, confusion and hallucinations
  • increased risk of infections, particularly chickenpox, shingles and measles
  • reduced growth in children

Other medicines and corticosteroids

Corticosteroids can interact with other medicines. This means that the effects of either medicine can change.

There’s less chance of this happening with steroid injections or sprays. But, it can occasionally happen if they’re used at high doses for a long time.

Some medicines that corticosteroids could interact with include:

If you want to check that your medicines are safe to take with your medication, speak to your pharmacist or GP.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Corticosteroids are not usually recommended unless the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

Steroid tablets may be recommended if you’re pregnant and have severe asthma. This is because the risk of uncontrolled asthma is greater than the risk from the medication.

You can usually continue to use a steroid inhaler as normal while you’re pregnant.

Steroid injections, inhalers and sprays aren’t thought to pose a risk to babies being breastfed. If steroid tablets are needed, prednisolone is usually recommended if breastfeeding.

Last updated:
31 May 2024