How Effective Are Corticosteroids for Asthma?

Madeleine A.

Taking corticosteroids for asthma helps reduce bronchial tube inflammation and improve breathing function. Corticosteroids for asthma can be given in liquid form, as a tablet, or via inhalation therapy. Sometimes, corticosteroids for asthma are administered by the intravenous route or taken by an intramuscular injection. Corticosteroids for asthma that are delivered by the inhalation route typically produce fewer side effects than those delivered by other routes.

A corticosteroid inhaler.
A corticosteroid inhaler.

Corticosteroids that are administered orally are generally reserved for asthma that is difficult to manage by inhaled corticosteroids. Oral corticosteroids for asthma are usually recommended for short periods of time, and are typically discontinued when symptoms improve. Only those cases of asthma that resist treatment are managed with oral steroids for long periods of time, due to the high incidence of side effects.

An illustration of the pathology of asthma.
An illustration of the pathology of asthma.

Benefits of oral corticosteroids for asthma include reduction in mucus production, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing. Other non-asthma related conditions, such as sinus conditions and psoriasis, may also improve due to the anti-inflammatory properties of oral steroids. Side effects of short-term oral steroids include fluid retention, stomach upset, excessive hunger, and blurred vision. Difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and mood changes can also occur as a result of taking oral corticosteroids.

Some women may experience weight gain as a side effect of long-term corticosteroid use.
Some women may experience weight gain as a side effect of long-term corticosteroid use.

Side effects of long-term corticosteroid use for asthma may include cataracts, osteoporosis, easy bruising, and hair loss. Also, weight gain, an increase in facial hair in women, and muscle weakness may also occur. Using oral corticosteroids for long periods of time may also increase the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain infections. Side effects, whether mild or serious, need to be discussed with the health care provider, who can recommend ways to manage them or prescribe a different treatment for asthma altogether.

It can be dangerous to abruptly discontinue taking corticosteroids for asthma. They should never be discontinued by the patient himself, and should always be gradually reduced by the health care provider. When corticosteroids are discontinued, side effects can also occur. These include joint pain, lack of energy, feelings of sadness, and flu-like symptoms. Although bothersome, these side effects are temporary and will resolve shortly after the medication has been discontinued.

Asthma can mimic other, less serious medical conditions such as post nasal drip, allergies, or respiratory infections. When wheezing, coughing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing occur, it should not be assumed that these symptoms are related to one of the aforementioned conditions. A diagnosis of asthma will need to be ruled out before an effective treatment plan can be instituted.

Long-term corticosteroid use for asthma may cause hair loss.
Long-term corticosteroid use for asthma may cause hair loss.

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