Medicine

Steroids

Steroids can help other treatments to work, reduce allergic reactions and improve side-effects.

What are steroids?

Steroids are natural hormones made in your body.  When steroids are used for people with cancer they are made in a laboratory. 

Why are steroids given?

Steroids can:

  • Help other treatments to work better. 
  • Reduce allergic reactions to other drugs
  • Improve side-effects like fatigue, nausea and poor appetite
  • Reduce swelling to relieve pressure, for example if you have spinal cord compression

How are steroids given?

Steroids are usually given in tablet form or as a liquid you can drink. They can be given as an injection too.
They are usually given in short courses. It is important to make sure you know how long you need to take them for.

Tips for taking steroids

  • Take steroids in the morning to try to avoid sleep problems.
  • Take steroids with milk or food to prevent stomach upset.
  • Report any signs of infection to your doctor and nurse – a high temperature, cough, swelling or any inflammation.
  • Tell your medical team if you have any side-effects that are bothering you.
  • Take all tablets as instructed. Make sure you take the correct dose and don’t stop talking steroids suddenly or without your doctor’s advice. If you miss a tablet, check with your doctor about what you should do. 
  • Keep tablets out of reach of children.

What are the side-effects of steroids?

In high doses steroids can have several possible side-effects. If you’re having other treatments at the same time as steroids, such as chemotherapy, you may get side-effects from them too. 

In most cases side-effects caused by steroids go away after you stop taking them. 

The more common side-effects include:

Stomach upset or indigestion

Steroids can irritate your stomach. Your doctor can prescribe an antacid or other medicine to help with this, so let them know if you have any stomach problems. 

Increased appetite and weight gain

It can be helpful to get your appetite back again, if you were having eating problems. But talk to the hospital dietitian if you’re putting on a lot of weight.

Increased blood pressure

Osteoporosis

Increased blood sugar – diabetes

Steroids can increase your blood sugar. You’ll have regular blood tests to check your blood sugar levels. Tell your doctor if you get very thirsty or if you are passing more urine than usual. Your blood sugars usually return to normal once treatment has stopped. If you already have diabetes, you may need to change how much insulin you take. Talk to your medical team about this. 

Fluid retention

Fluid retention can make your feet and ankles or fingers swell up while you are taking steroids. You may also put on weight because of the build-up of fluid. 

Higher risk of infection, especially thrush

Steroids can make you more likely to get infections. We have more about preventing infection. Thrush can cause an itchy white discharge in your mouth or from your vagina or penis. There are creams you can get from the pharmacy to help with this. 

Mood changes

Occasionally steroids may cause you to have episodes of extreme happiness, sadness and mood swings, e.g irritability, anxiety, tearfulness, high spirits. Or with high-dose steroids you may feel confused or think strange or frightening thoughts. These are rare but let your doctor know if they happen. 

Sleeplessness

Steroids can improve fatigue and help you to feel more energetic, but you might feel a bit ‘hyperactive’ or very restless too. This can make it hard to sleep. Taking your steroids as early as possible in the day, away from bedtime, should help.

Changes to periods

Your periods may stop or become irregular during treatment. Your normal cycle should return after you stop taking steroids. 

Long term side-effect: weight gain

If you have to take steroids for a long time as part of your treatment, you will put on weight, especially around your face, waist and shoulders.

Long term side-effect: infections

You may have a lowered resistance to infection. Try to avoid close contact with people who have colds, flu or any kind of infection while you are taking steroids.

For more information

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