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What Are Systemic Corticosteroids?

By Meshell Powell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Systemic corticosteroids are prescription medications that are used to treat a variety of inflammatory medical conditions. These drugs are made from a synthetic equivalent of a natural hormone known as cortisol and are available in oral or injectible formulations. Some of the specific conditions that may be treated with systemic corticosteroids include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or Crohn's disease. Possible side effects of steroid medications may include weight gain, insomnia, or thinning of the skin. While these side effects are usually mild, any persistent or bothersome symptoms that begin after starting treatment with these medications should be reported to a doctor for further evaluation.

In addition to inhaled steroid drugs, systemic corticosteroids may be be used to treat airway inflammation caused by respiratory illnesses such as asthma or bronchitis. Inflamed joints or muscles may be treated with the use of systemic corticosteroids in those diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Intestinal inflammation that occurs as a result if intestinal disorders such as Crohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome may also be treated with these medications. These drugs may be used to treat a variety of other medical conditions as well, including allergic reactions, adrenal insufficiency, or female reproductive issues.

In most cases, systemic corticosteroids are used for short periods of time due to the possible development of serious side effects. The risk of adverse side effects increases dramatically when these drugs are used for extended periods of time. Some of the most frequently reported side effects of the use of short-term systemic corticosteroids include insomnia, weight gain, and changes in energy levels.

Potential long-term side effects of systemic corticosteroids may include easy bruising or bleeding caused by thinning skin, an increased susceptibility to bacterial infections, or the development of hormone dysfunction such as diabetes. Visual disturbances such as glaucoma or cataracts may sometimes occur when these drugs are used for a prolonged period of time. High blood pressure, osteoporosis, or stunted growth pattern are also possible side effects.

Frequent blood tests may be recommended when long term-use of systemic corticosteroids is necessary. These tests help to determine whether the various organs of the body are functioning properly. In rare cases, steroid medications can lead to kidney failure, heart disease, or damage to the digestive tract. Early diagnosis involving these potential complications can often prevent the need for surgical intervention and may even help to save the life of the patient in some situations.

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