Corticosteroids (Cortisone, Prednisone, and Hydrocortisone)
Corticosteroids are used extensively by physicians and health practitioners to treat a variety of ailments including mild to severe allergic reactions, asthma, arthritis, lupus, and Addison’s Disease. Corticosteroids work by mimicking the hormones produced in the adrenal glands and suppressing inflammation and subsequent inflammatory conditions. Corticosteroids also work to inhibit immune system functions wherein the immune system actually attacks its own tissues. When the patient and doctor work closely together, these steroids can be a huge factor in reducing the discomfort, pain, and inflammation associated with these and other conditions. In some cases, corticosteroids are truly necessary to treat life-threatening conditions such as Addison’s Disease or to help prevent organ rejection in transplant patients.
Corticosteroids are administered by mouth (through tablets, capsules or syrups) by inhalers or nasal sprays, by topical ointments or creams (to treat skin conditions), and by injection.
Corticosteroids do carry a risk of side effects, either short or long term, and with varying degrees of severity. Patients taking corticosteroids should be monitored carefully by their physicians, especially if they have taken the steroids over an extended period of time. Adrenal glands reduce outputs of natural hormones and will require time to recover their normal function. Corticosteroid therapy should be discontinued gradually to minimize side effects of withdrawal.
Orally ingested corticosteroids carry the biggest risk of side effects which can include weight gain particularly noticeable in the face, neck and abdomen; increased pressure in the eyes (glaucoma); increased blood pressure; mood swings; and a build up of fluid, causing swelling in the lower legs. Long term side effects include cataracts; thinning of the skin; high blood sugar which can worsen to diabetes; adrenal gland hormone suppression; increased risk of infections; bruising easily; wounds that are slow to heal; loss of calcium from bones leading to fractures and osteoporosis; and menstrual irregularities.
Inhaled corticosteroids can cause coughing; sore throats; scratchy throat or hoarseness; and dry mouth.
Corticosteroids applied topically can cause acne, skin lesions, and thinning of the skin.
Injected corticosteroids can cause infections, pain, discoloration, and loss of tissue at the sight of the injection.
The side effects of withdrawing from the steroids too quickly are achiness, fatigue, and a compromised ability to recover from illness.
In spite of the potential for side effects, the use of steroids has been a boon to millions of patients seeking relief from mild to severe inflammatory illnesses and allergies. Patients should discuss both the risks and health benefits of any steroid therapy with their physicians.