Common Side Effects of Asthma Steroid Medication

Girl using an inhaler

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People with persistent asthma generally use two types of medication to treat their illness and symptoms. The first type is a quick-relief bronchodilator, which is usually used to help stop an asthma attack that has already begun. The second type is a corticosteroid, which is used to help control and prevent asthma attacks.

The first type of medicine used for the quick relief of acute symptoms brought on by an asthma attack is an inhaled medicine, such as a short-acting beta agonist or bronchodilator, such as albuterol, that relaxes tightened muscles around the airway.

The second type of medicine used for the long-term control of asthma is an inhaled corticosteroid, which is a standard steroid medical treatment. This medicine functions similarly to cortisol, a hormone that is produced in the human body by the adrenal glands.

Corticosteroids reduce inflammation of the airways to help prevent asthma symptoms and attacks. Corticosteroids are often referred to with the abbreviated name of "steroids" and should not be confused with the drugs that are abused by some athletes, which are a different type of compound often involving the synthetic male hormones.

Steroid Side Effects Can Be a Concern

Because corticosteroids are used over the long term, side effects of this type of medicine can be a concern. Some side effects that may result from the use of this type of steroid include the following:

  • Fungal Infections. Thrush, a fungal infection of the mouth, is the most common side effect of inhaled corticosteroids. Thrush can be easily treated and even prevented by rinsing the mouth after the medication is inhaled, or sometimes by changing the inhalation technique. Ask your healthcare provider for advice. Inhaled corticosteroids do not cause fungal infections in the lungs.
  • Hoarseness. Some people find their voices become husky or hoarse when using an inhaled corticosteroid. Usually, this can be remedied by having the doctor lower the dose, but if the hoarseness persists, the treatment may be discontinued.
  • Bruising. Occasional bruising may occur from the use of inhaled corticosteroids, but as a rule, side effects throughout the body from such medications are much less than those from steroids taken in a pill form.
  • Weight Gain. Steroids themselves do not cause weight gain, but they may cause increased appetite. People taking steroids should be careful about controlling their dietary food intake. Talk to your healthcare provider if weight gain becomes a concern.

Other side effects from these steroids may include nervousness, nausea, rapid heartbeat, loss or gain of appetite. These side effects are less common and are more likely to be seen with higher doses of inhaled steroids. They can usually be resolved by having the doctor change the dose or prescribe a different asthma medicine.

With proper dosages and use of the appropriate type of inhaled corticosteroid medicine, side effects can be kept to a minimum. This is currently the best treatment option for the person with persistent asthma.

There is no scientific evidence to prove that alternative treatments such as herbs and supplements are effective in treating asthma. In fact, some of these alternatives may even interact with prescription asthma medications or trigger allergies, which can lead to an asthma attack. Before taking any herbal remedies or nutritional supplements, an asthmatic should be sure to consult with their healthcare provider first.

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Article Sources

  • American Lung Association. Understanding Your Medication. 
  • Asthma Initiative of Michigan. FAQ:Steroids & Growth. 
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. How is Asthma Treated and Controlled?