What Are Steroid Medications?

The term “steroid medications” refers to corticosteroids as well as to androgen and anabolic steroids. Corticosteroid medications are synthetic versions of hormones normally produced by the adrenal glands.

Corticosteroids are widely used to treat pain conditions because they can be administered in a variety of ways, they are long-acting, and they tend to cost less than other medications.

Some examples of corticosteroids are hydrocortisone, prednisone, dexamethasone, and fludrocortisone. Most corticosteroids must be prescribed by a doctor but some corticosteroids are available over-the-counter.

How Are Steroid Medications Administered?

eye conditionsThere are multiple ways of administering corticosteroid medications. Corticosteroids may be administered by injection, inhalation, orally, intravenously, or through an epidural. Corticosteroids medications may also be applied topically to the skin.

Injections are often used to administer a corticosteroid directly to an inflamed joint or tissue. The effects of the injected corticosteroids are usually localized to the inflamed area. The doctor may administer a local anesthetic along with the corticosteroid to reduce the pain of the injection.

Some of the side effects of injected corticosteroids include pain at the site of the injection, infection, skin breakdown, and a general feeling of being unwell.

The length of time over which corticosteroids can be injected depends on the condition treated.  A one-time injection of a corticosteroid may be administered in an emergency setting. A short-term course of injections usually lasts four to six weeks while a longer-term course of corticosteroid injections may include multiple injections over a 12-month period.

Inhalation devices administer corticosteroids directly through the airways. It is important to receive instruction in the proper use and cleaning of an inhaler from a healthcare professional prior to using an inhalation device. It is also recommended that anyone using an inhalation device regularly review their inhalation technique with a healthcare professional as proper technique is required to ensure that the correct dose of medication is being administered.

Oral corticosteroids are taken by mouth. Side effects of short-term courses of corticosteroid therapy tend to be mild and include water retention, increase in appetite, weight gain, headaches, and stomachaches. Long-term use of corticosteroids is associated with more significant side effects such as weakening of the bones, weight gain, increased blood sugar, increased risk of diabetes, thinning of the skin, and muscle weakness.

Since weakening of the bones is one of the most common long-term side effects of oral corticosteroids, patients on such treatment protocols are often advised to take measures to prevent weakening of the bones.  Ways of protecting the bones while on long-term corticosteroids include taking calcium and vitamin D. A doctor may also prescribe a medication to prevent the bones from weakening. Also, as a general rule, patients taking corticosteroids are advised to stop smoking, reduce alcohol consumption, and to engage in regular exercise.

Topical corticosteroids are available as creams, lotions, or ointments. These medications are applied directly to the affected area. Skin reactions to topical corticosteroid medications can occur; however, they are often due to a fragrance or a preservative in the ointment, cream, or lotion rather than to the actual corticosteroid.

An intravenous administration first requires placement of an intravenous tube. This tube is inserted through a needle directly into a vein.  Once inserted, the corticosteroid is administered directly into the bloodstream.

Epidurals can be used to administer corticosteroids directly to the spine area. The epidural space lies just beyond where the membrane surrounds the spine and spinal fluid. During an epidural administration a thin tube is inserted into the epidural space after a local anesthetic has been applied. The corticosteroid is then administered though this tube.

Conditions Related To Steroid Medications

impact of headachesCorticosteroids are used to treat a wide variety of inflammatory, allergic, and autoimmune conditions related to the skin, respiratory system, endocrine system, digestive system, eye, immune system, and musculoskeletal system. Specific conditions that can require corticosteroid treatment are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, skin rashes, food and drug allergies, colitis, Crohn’s disease, anemia, tendinitis, arthritis, and migraine headaches.

For musculoskeletal pain, corticosteroids are often used in conjunction with treatments such as rest, ice, physical therapy, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.

Corticosteroid treatment is often considered a conservative alternative to surgery and can quickly improve a person’s ability to function. Corticosteroid treatment tends to produce excellent short-term benefits. However, it remains to be determined if corticosteroids provide long-term benefits for musculoskeletal conditions.

Sciatica-3Epidural administration of corticosteroids can be used to treat low back pain due to sciatica and spinal stenosis. When combined with physical therapy, corticosteroids can reduce the pain of these conditions and improve functioning.

Corticosteroids can also be used to treat conditions of adrenal insufficiency such as Addison’s disease. Conditions of adrenal insufficiency occur when the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones. Corticosteroids are therefore prescribed to achieve normal levels of adrenal hormones.

Some of the mechanisms by which corticosteroids act are by suppressing the immune system, preventing the narrowing of blood vessels, blocking the accumulation of fluid in tissues known as edema, and preventing over-proliferation of skin cells. Corticosteroids are needed to suppress the body’s immune system when the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy cells. Corticosteroids may also act by reducing the body’s ability to produce chemicals that stimulate the painful process of inflammation. Therefore, when used to treat musculoskeletal pain, corticosteroids can ease pain, reduce inflammation, and improve the mobility of the joint.


Steroid medications include corticosteroids and the androgen and anabolic steroids. Corticosteroids are used to treat inflammatory, allergic, and autoimmune conditions as well as adrenal insufficiency. Corticosteroids are widely used for their ability to reduce pain and inflammation. While short-term use of corticosteroids is associated with mild side effects, long-term use of corticosteroids can cause significant side effects. However, patients can take measures to reduce the side effects of long-term corticosteroids.


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