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What are Catabolic Steroids?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Catabolic steroids, often called corticosteroids, are used in a variety of medical applications. They are often confused with anabolic steroids, which are used to build muscle mass. In fact, they have the opposite effect, breaking down muscle mass. They are frequently used to reduce significant swelling, and to treat autoimmune diseases or severe asthma.

One of the most common catabolic steroids is cortisone. This may be injected at the sight of a soft tissue injury to reduce pain and swelling. Cortisone skin creams may be applied to reduce swelling, itching, and inflammation associated with skin conditions, bad insect bites, or severe reactions to poison oak.

Prednisone is another common catabolic steroid, which is often used over long periods of time to reduce symptoms of autoimmune conditions like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Prednisone is thought to reduce swelling of affected joints and soft tissue, and usually reduces some symptoms associated with these illnesses. It also accelerates healing from infections.

Prednisone and similar steroids may also be used for short periods of time to reduce swelling caused by injury or by temporary conditions, like a severe skin allergy. It also is used in some cases to minimize swelling due to concussion, or it may be used to help someone quickly resolve a case of antibiotic resistant pneumonia or bronchitis.

Other types of catabolic steroids are now routinely used in the treatment of severe allergies. Products like Nasonex®, and Rhinocort® both reduce nasal allergic reactions during allergy season. These products are directly inhaled into the sinuses so they are specific to a certain area of the body. They are frequently thought to be a better alternative than using oral steroids like prednisone, since they affect only the intended area of the body.

Other medications of this type that are condition specific include products like Restasis®, which relieves chronic dry eye. Products like Pulmocort® may be inhaled as an asthma preventative, replacing oral steroids for those with severe asthma.

Catabolic steroids have some noted side effects. Since they can destroy muscle tissue, consistent use of oral steroids may have serious effects on the intestinal tract. Such medications like prednisone may also cause changes in appetite, weight gain, water retention, diabetes, and mood changes if doses are high. Mood changes may be particularly noted when one is on a short-term regimen of medications like prednisone.

Condition specific medications like Restasis® have been linked to permanent and irreparable damage to the retinas, as have oral steroids. Though oral steroids are frequently the first line of treatment for certain conditions like asthma and allergies, one should consider risk versus benefits before using any catabolic steroids for long periods of time. Short-term use may provide short-term side effects but is unlikely to cause lasting damage to the body.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon992799 — On Oct 03, 2015

Some people need to re-read the first paragraph!

By Penzance356 — On May 24, 2011

I've worked as a volunteer on a drug counseling helpline for several years, and steroids are one of the top three topics people call about.

Leaving aside the ethical and legal implications, the issue of steroids in sport, particularly body building, is a worrying one. Many callers tell me that Dianabol steroids are on sale openly at gyms. For young men looking for a way to build muscle fast, steroids are a regular part of this culture.

What fewer people think about are the side effects, which can include premature balding and in many cases, increased female hormones in the body. They then need to take another drug to counteract this!

There are also a steady amount of callers who ask about medically prescribed steroids, and their effects. Often they have been influenced by the negative publicity of the drug, or are debating whether the relief is worth the risk.

I am glad to have the chance to give people the information and reassurance they need. I just wish I could do more to educate those young people who use steroids recreationally.

By CaithnessCC — On May 22, 2011

@Potterspop - I think a lot of people have that image of gym addicts taking body building steroids! It's a pity, as when used carefully and responsibly they are a major help.

I suffer from periodic outbreaks of hives, and sometimes need a steroid shot to deal with it. It's not something I really want to do, but I'm glad the option is there.

By Potterspop — On May 21, 2011

Thanks for this straightforward description of steroids and the effects they can have on your body.

My mother has had a shoulder problem for a while and the doctor just told her she needs a steroid injection. I was really worried, because most of what I hear about them is negative. You've really put my mind at rest.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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