by Robert S. Dinsmoor
Synthetic drugs related to cortisol, a hormone made by the adrenal glands that plays a role in regulating the metabolism of carbohydrate, protein, and fat as well as maintaining the body’s sodium and water balance. The adrenal glands secrete extra cortisol to release stored energy in response to infection, trauma, and psychological stress.
Corticosteroids block the production of substances that trigger allergic reactions and inflammation. They also suppress the body’s immune system, which can help to control certain autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues. Because corticosteroids suppress the immune system, they can leave people more susceptible to infections.
Among the most commonly used corticosteroids are prednisone, hydrocortisone, and methylprednisolone. Corticosteroids are used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (“lupus”), ankylosing spondylitis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, scleroderma, and a number of other rheumatic diseases. Corticosteroids can be taken orally, injected into a vein or muscle, applied topically to the skin, or injected directly into inflamed joints. In addition, corticosteroids are used in eye products to treat various eye conditions, inhalers to treat asthma and other airway diseases, andn nasal drops and sprays to treat nasal problems.
Some of the more common side effects of corticosteroids include increased pressure inside the eyes (glaucoma), swelling of the lower legs, increased blood pressure, mood swings, and weight gain. Long-term use may set the stage for osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). Doctors try to minimize the side effects by using steroids only when needed, and using the minimal dose for the least amount of time required to control the disease. People taking corticosteroids should be monitored frequently for side effects.
This column is written by Robert S. Dinsmoor, a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.
Last Reviewed on October 30, 2014.
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