What are steroids and how are they used?

Steroids are a man-made version of chemicals, known as hormones, that are made naturally in the human body. Steroids are designed to act like these hormones to reduce inflammation.

They’re also known as corticosteroids, and are different to anabolic steroids used by bodybuilders and athletes.

Steroids won’t cure your condition, but they’re very good at reducing inflammation and will ease symptoms such as swelling, pain and stiffness.

Usually inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to infection or bacteria. Your immune system produces extra fluid to fight infections or bacteria, which causes swelling, redness and heat in the affected area. You might have noticed this if you have had a cut or wound on your skin.

In some conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system produces inflammation in the joints or other parts of the body by mistake, which can cause permanent damage if left untreated. Steroids can be used to reduce this immune reaction.

When and how do I take steroids?

Steroids are taken in different ways, and the dosage may vary depending on the condition you have. The table below gives an idea of how often you might need to take steroids.

You should always take medication as prescribed by the person treating you.

Tablets, liquids and soluble tablets

  • Usually once a day.
  • Preferably in the morning.
  • Either with or after food to prevent stomach problems.

Creams and gels

  • Usually once or twice a day for a few weeks.
  • Your doctor might suggest taking them less often but for a longer period.
  • Should only be used on affected areas of the skin.

Eye drops and ointments

  • May need to be taken regularly throughout the day.
  • Usually one drop in each eye each time you take it.

You will be given the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time, to reduce the risk of side effects. Your dose will probably be reduced gradually as your symptoms improve, or your doctor might suggest a weaker medication.

It’s important that you don’t stop taking steroids without speaking to the person treating you first.

If you’ve taken steroid tablets for more than a few days, they can cause side effects known as withdrawal symptoms if you stop suddenly. You might be given a small dose, known as a maintenance dose, for a long time to make sure your symptoms don’t return.

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