By Tash Hughes of
Corticosteroids are a group of powerful drugs that are based on
What are they?
Corticosteroids are steroids, along with various other drugs and
naturally occurring hormones.
They are manufactured based on the hormone cortisol. In the 1940s,
corticosteroids were isolated from the hormones and
introduced as medicines that produced results that
There are two types of corticosteroids, the glucocorticoids and the
mineralacortoids. Medically, the glucocortoids are used
more often and this term is often used interchangeably
Glucocortoids work on the immune system, stopping the production of
substances that cause allergic reactions and
What is coritsol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in humans. It
is important in regulating the water/salt balance in the
body and the metabolism of fats, proteins and
This hormone is a steroid and is made from cholesterol. It can
affect the stress responses, behaviour and the immune
When are they used?
Glucocortoids are usually used to treat inflammation and
Common issues treated with glucocortoids include:
Arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis
Dermatitis and skin conditions
inflammatory bowel disease
also used to help the body accept a transplanted organ.
Which glucocortoid, the dosage and the length of
treatment depend on the problem being treated.
What about side effects?
There are a number of side effects common to
corticosteroid use, although most effects are reversible
(that is, they go away when you stop using the drug.)
In some people, corticosteroids can cause major problems
so these are not drugs used without a good medical
reason for doing so. The side effects are more common in
long term users of the drugs so doctors usually
prescribe the smallest does for the shortest time that
will solve the problem so that side effects are
minimised as much as possible.
Some of the common side effects are:
High blood pressure
Increased appetite and weight gain
Increase blood sugar levels and possibly diabetes
Thinning of the skin
Slow healing of wounds
acne like marks on the skin
fatty areas on the chest, face, upper back and
psychological affects (e.g. mood swings, insomnia,
depression, excitement, delirium)
a hip problem called aseptic necrosis (very rare)
a round face that looks puffy
irregularities in periods
drug induced Cushing’s Syndrome
As glucocortoids act on the immune system, these drugs can make the
patient more susceptible to infections during treatment.
In particular, people taking corticosteroids should
avoid exposure to chicken pox and measles, the oral
polio vaccine and people who have recently taken the
oral polio vaccine.
Taking these drugs during pregnancy may cause birth defects and they
can pass through breast milk so careful consideration is
required before offering these women coticosteroids.
Side effects are more common when the drugs are taken orally (by
tablets or liquid medicines.)
As corticosteroids are so powerful, they need to be
stopped slowly, rather than going from a large dose to
During treatment, the adrenal glands will stop producing
cortisol. By slowing reducing the dosage of
corticosetroids, the adrenal gland can restart making
the cortisol hormone.
It can take months or even a year to reduce a high
dosage of corticosteroids enough for someone to
comfortably stop taking the drug.
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