Steroid medicines (known as corticosteroids) are man-made versions of natural steroids. These are produced in the body by our adrenal glands. Steroid medicines come in various forms. Those taken by mouth are known as oral steroids and can help in many diseases.
What are oral steroids?
There are several different forms of steroid medicines. The form discussed in this leaflet is the tablet form, taken by mouth, called oral steroids. Other types of steroids include creams, inhalers, drops and sprays. These are discussed in the separate leaflets called Topical Steroids (excluding Inhaled Steroids), Topical Steroids for Eczema and Inhalers for Asthma.
What do they do?
As above, steroids both natural and medicinal versions, settle inflammation and dampen down the actions of the immune system. They also prevent cells in our body from multiplying, by shutting down production of DNA, the molecules which carry our genetic code within every cell. Other effects include a narrowing of blood vessels and influences on various hormones.
Are there different types?
Yes, broadly speaking there are two groups of oral steroids. The most commonly used group is glucocorticoids. This group includes steroids such as:
The other group is called mineralocorticoids. This is the type usually used for replacing steroids the body isn't producing itself, and the common one used is fludrocortisone.
They usually come as tablets, but some also come as dispersible tablets or solutions.
Where can I get them?
From a pharmacy, oral steroids are only available with a prescription from your doctor. This is because it is safest to take them under medical guidance.
Do they work?
Generally steroids are extremely effective, when prescribed appropriately.
Can I take steroids if I am pregnant or breast-feeding?
Your doctor will help you weigh up the pros and cons but, generally speaking, steroids can usually be used safely in pregnant or breast-feeding women. The lowest dose possible for the shortest possible amount of time would be used. It is thought that when used in early pregnancy, taking steroids may slightly increase the risk of your baby having a cleft lip and/or palate.
How to use the Yellow Card Scheme
If you think you have had a side-effect to one of your medicines you can report this on the Yellow Card Scheme. You can do this online at www.mhra.gov.uk/yellowcard.
The Yellow Card Scheme is used to make pharmacists, doctors and nurses aware of any new side-effects that medicines or any other healthcare products may have caused. If you wish to report a side-effect, you will need to provide basic information about:
- The side-effect.
- The name of the medicine which you think caused it.
- The person who had the side-effect.
- Your contact details as the reporter of the side-effect.
It is helpful if you have your medication - and/or the leaflet that came with it - with you while you fill out the report.
Further reading and references
British National Formulary; NICE Evidence Services (UK access only)
Corticosteroids - oral; NICE CKS, August 2015 (UK access only)
Gupta A, Gupta Y; Glucocorticoid-induced myopathy: Pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Sep17(5):913-6. doi: 10.4103/2230-8210.117215.
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