Corticosteroids for Inflammation

Corticosteroids, also called glucocorticoids or just "steroids," are drugs used to treat an array of inflammatory, respiratory, or autoimmune disorders. The drugs mimic a hormone called cortisol that the body produces at times of stress and help rapidly reduce inflammation and temper an overactive immune response.

Close up of hands holding a pill bottle
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Corticosteroids can be taken by mouth, applied to the skin or eyes, or injected into a muscle, joint, or vein. While extremely effective, they are typically used for a short period of time to avoid potentially serious side effects. For certain chronic conditions, like multiple sclerosis or asthma, low-dose oral or inhaled corticosteroids can be used safely on an ongoing basis.

Corticosteroids should not be confused with anabolic steroids, the latter of which are primarily used to promote muscle growth.

Uses

Corticosteroids were first used to relieve symptoms of arthritis back in 1948 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The drugs are synthetic versions of cortisol produced by the adrenal glands, which attach to the cortisol receptors on organs to elicit the same effects.

Corticosteroids have different therapeutic uses:

  • Anti-inflammatory: The drugs act on the immune system by blocking the production of substances that trigger inflammation, such as prostaglandins. This can help rapidly relieve redness, warmth, swelling, and pain either locally (in a specific area) or systemically (throughout the entire body).
  • Immunosuppressive: Corticosteroids can suppress the action of the immune system when it acts against it (such as occurs with autoimmune diseases) by impairing the production of defensive white blood cells, called T cells.
  • Vasoconstrictive: The drugs block an inflammatory compound called histidine and, by doing so, can reduce mucus secretions that can congest airways and other organs.

These properties can be applied to numerous medical conditions to relieve or manage symptoms and prevent disease progression. Among them:

Types of Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids can be delivered orally (in pill or liquid form), topically (applied to the skin or eyes), intramuscularly (by injection into a muscle), intra-articularly (by injection into a joint space), intravenously (by injection into a vein), or by inhalation (into the nose or lungs).

Some of the more commonly prescribed corticosteroids are cortisone, hydrocortisone, prednisone, prednisolone, and methylprednisolone. Most corticosteroids are available by prescription only (with the exception of over-the-counter nasal sprays or topical steroids like hydrocortisone 1%).

In some cases, the brand name of the drug will be the same irrespective of the route of administration; in others, the brand name can differ.

Route of Administration Drug
Oral Celestone (bethamethasone)
Cortef (hydrocortisone)
Cortisone
Decadron (dexamethasone)
Prednisone
Prednisolone
Medrol (methylprednisolone)
Inhalation Aerobid (flunisolide)
Alvesco (ciclesonide)
Asmanex (mometasone)
Flovent (fluticasone)
Pulmicort (budesonide)
Qvar (beclometasone)
Intra-articular Aristospan (triamcinolone)
Celestone (betamethasone)
Cortaren (dexamethasone)
Solu-Medrol (methylprednisolone)
Intramuscular Aristospan (triamcinolone)
Celestone (betamethasone)
Decadron (dexamethasone)

Solu-Medrol (methylprednisolone)
Intravenous Aristospan (triamcinolone)
Celestone (betamethasone)
D
ecadron (dexamethasone)
Prednisone

Prednisolone
Solu-Cortef (hydrocortisone)
Solu-Medrol (methylprednisolone)
Vanceril (beclomethasone)
Topical Aclovate (alcolometasone 0.05%)
Cordran (flurandrenolide (0.05%)
Cutivate (fluticasone 0.05%)
Dermovate (clobetasol 0.05%)
Diprolene (betamethasone 0.25%)
Elocon (mometasone 0.1%)
Hydrocortisone 1%
Kenolog (triamcinonone 0.5%)
Tridesilon (desonide 0.05%)

Side Effects

Corticosteroid can cause side effects, the range of which can vary by the formulation and route of administration. Generally speaking, the side effects of oral steroids tend to be the most severe, particularly if used on a prolonged basis.

If overused or administered in excessively high doses, some corticosteroids can mimic the symptoms of Cushing syndrome, an adrenal disease characterized by the overproduction of cortisol.

Moreover, the immunosuppressive effects of corticosteroids (while beneficial to organ transplant recipients and people with autoimmune diseases) can leave the body vulnerable to a wide array of bacterial, fungal, parasitic, and viral infections.

Route of Administration Common Side Effects
Topical  Facial flusing
Hypopigmentation (loss of skin color)
Insomnia
Skin atrophy (the thinning of skin)
Inhalation Cough
Headache
Nausea and vomiting
Nosebleed
Oral candidiasis (thrush)
Sore throat
Upper respiratory infections
Intra-articular Cartilage damage
Hypopigmention
Joint infection
Nerve damage
Osteonecrosis (nearby bone death)
Osteoporosis (bone thinning)
Local skin atrophy
Intramuscular or intravenous Acne
Cataracts
Edema (fluid retention)
Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
Insomnia
Metallic taste
Mood changes
Osteoporosis
Stomach ulcers
Weight gain
Oral Acne
Cataracts
Delayed wound healing
Depression
Edema
Glaucoma
Hirsutism (abnormal body hair growth)
Hyperglycemia
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Insomnia
Lipodystrophy (redistribution of body fat)
Mood swings
Muscle weakness
Nausea or vomiting
Osteoporosis
Skin atrophy
Stomach ulcers
Stunted growth in children
Susceptibility to infection
Weight gain
Worsening of diabetes

The side effects of corticosteroids can be minimized by taking the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time need to achieve the therapeutic goals. Never alter the prescribed dosage without first speaking with your doctor.

Discontinuation of Treatment

Once exposed to a corticosteroid drug, the body will be fooled into thinking there are ample quantities of cortisol in the body and no longer produce the hormone itself. The longer you are on treatment, the more the adrenal glands will stop functioning and effectively go into hibernation.

If the corticosteroid drug is suddenly discontinued, it can take a long time for the adrenal glands to start working again and meet the body's cortisol needs. Without enough cortisol to keep the body functioning normally, an adrenal crisis can occur, manifesting with a range of potentially severe symptoms, including:

  • Abdominal pain or flank pain
  • Headache
  • High fever
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Severe weakness
  • Sluggish movements
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid respiration rate
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma

Another possible complication is steroid withdrawal syndrome in which symptoms of the treated condition suddenly return once the treatment is stopped. Although this is mainly associated with oral steroids, it can even occur when topical steroids are used for a long time.

To avoid these complications, doctors will gradually taper the dose if the drug has been used for more than two weeks or if a high-dose steroid was used. Depending on the dose and the duration of therapy, the tapering period can last anywhere from weeks to years and must be supervised by an experienced physician.

A Word from Verywell

Corticosteroids are powerful drugs that can improve symptoms of many inflammatory or autoimmune diseases. With that said, the risks may outweigh the benefits if the drugs are overused or used inappropriately.

Always take corticosteroids as prescribed. If symptoms develop during treatment, let your doctor know but do not stop treatment until your doctor tells you to. Alternative therapies can often be found if the side effects are intolerable or potentially irreversible.

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