What are steroids?
Steroids or anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are artificially produced testosterone variants manufactured to treat delayed puberty and lean-muscle loss in cancer patients and AIDS patients. Steroids disrupt normal hormone production, which can alter one’s mood and impact other body systems. Athletes (and non-athletes) sometimes use them illegally to increase muscle mass and enhance performance.
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are synthetically produced variations of the male sex hormone testosterone. While these drugs can be legally prescribed to treat conditions resulting from hormone deficiency (delayed puberty) and loss of lean muscle (cancer, AIDS), steroids are occasionally abused by both athletes and non-athletes in an attempt to improve physical performance and/or appearance. Steroids disrupt normal hormone production, causing changes in behavior and in many systems of the body.
Doctors never prescribe anabolic steroids to young, healthy people to help them build muscles. Without a prescription from your physician, anabolic steroids are illegal.
Steroids are used to treat the following conditions:
Coronavirus (the steroid, dexamethasone, has been shown to help people with severe symptoms)
Rheumatoid arthritis and other joint problems
Rashes and other skin conditions
Pulmonary lung problems like asthma
Inflammatory bowel disease
Steroids may come in the form of inhalers when used to treat lung conditions or creams when used for rashes, eczema, and other skin conditions. Steroid injections are most often used for treating inflammatory conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions that are systemic in nature. However, corticosteroids might be used topically for conditions like poison ivy. Steroids also come in tablets, eye drops, ointments, and ear drops. Steroids mimic cortisol, which is a natural hormone produced in the adrenal glands. Part of its efficacy is in the way it mimics the body's natural processes, but when overused or applied incorrectly, steroids can have serious side effects and are very dangerous.
Steroid abuse and addiction
Abuse of anabolic steroids differs from the abuse of other illicit substances: initial abuse of anabolic steroids is not driven by the immediate pleasure or euphoria that motivates cocaine, heroin or marijuana use. Instead, users take steroids in order to change their physical appearances or athletic performances. Because steroids can cause confidence and strength, abusers often overlook their serious and long-term consequences.
Steroids can be taken orally, rubbed into the skin or injected. Typically, users take steroids in cycles—using for periods of weeks or months, stopping for a period of time, and then starting again. During this process, known as cycling, users often take a cocktail of several different types of steroids in an attempt to maximize their effects, a practice referred to as stacking. Oral and injectable steroids are often mixed. Another type of steroid abuse, known as pyramiding, involves slowly increasing the dose of steroids taken until they peak mid-cycle and then tapering dosage as the cycle ends.
Steroid abuse is dangerous. It can cause addiction and withdrawal upon cessation. Withdrawal symptoms include mood swings, insomnia and, most notably, severe depression (which occasionally leads to suicide attempts.) Often, abusers turn to other drugs in an attempt to counteract these symptoms. Individuals who abuse steroids are urged to seek treatment before they cause lasting damage to their health and lives.
How steroids affect users
In the short term, abuse of anabolic steroids can lead to aggression, extreme mood swings and manic-like symptoms that may lead to violence. Additionally, users may experience extreme irritability, delusions, intense anger (roid rage), paranoid jealously and feelings of invincibility that may impair judgment. Furthermore, because steroids are often injected, users who share needles or use non-sterile techniques are at risk for contracting dangerous infections, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C.
Longer-term abuse of steroids results in a variety of adverse side effects and serious (often irreversible) health problems such as liver damage, jaundice, fluid retention, high blood pressure, increased LDL (bad cholesterol), and decreased HDL (good cholesterol). Abuse can also cause renal failure, severe acne, oily scalp, heart attacks, stroke, tendon rupture and trembling. Teens who abuse steroids risk stunted growth due to premature skeletal maturation.
In addition to these general side effects, steroid use also causes gender and age-specific side effects:
Male steroid side effects
- Hormonal disruption that results in infertility
- Breast development
- Reduced sperm count
- Increased risk of prostate cancer
- Shrinking of the testicles
Female steroid side effects
- Enlargement of the clitoris
- Disruption of menses
- Excessive facial and body hair growth
- Deepened voice
- Male-pattern baldness
Why do anabolic steroids differ from other illegal drugs?
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) differ from other illegal drugs in that they are not taken for a high or other emotional effects. They are taken to enhance physical attributes, muscle mass, and improve physical performance. Steroids disrupt natural hormone production and impact other changes both in behavior and the body’s other systems.
Signs of steroid abuse and addiction
There are several signs that a person has become addicted to steroids, including a preoccupation with getting the next dose; continued use in spite of negative consequences; loss of control when it comes to steroid use; abnormal speed of muscle growth; and withdrawal symptoms upon rapidly curtailed or discontinued use.
Treating steroid abuse and addiction
If you or someone you care for is struggling with steroid abuse, professional rehabilitation can help. Learn more.
Stages of Steroid Addiction Treatment
Step 1: Detox and withdrawal
The first step in treating steroid addiction is to help the patient stop using steroids through detox. Detox should be closely monitored, as depression and suicidal thoughts may occur. If left untreated, symptoms of depression can persist for a year or more after the patient stops using steroids. Other steroid withdrawal symptoms vary from patient to patient but can include headaches, muscle aches and insomnia. If withdrawal symptoms are particularly severe or prolonged, inpatient detox or hospitalization may be required.
Medications, such as antidepressants and analgesics (for muscle and joint pain), can be administered to manage steroid withdrawal symptoms. Medications may also be used to restore hormonal balance and reduce cravings.
Step 2: Address comorbid addictions alongside steroid addiction
It is important to note that related drug addictions commonly complicate steroid addiction. Steroid users experience pain and trouble sleeping, leading to self-medication with opioids or other drugs that develop additional addiction. In these cases, steroid treatment must simultaneously address comorbid addictions.
Step 3: Undergo comprehensive behavioral steroid addiction treatment
Once steroid and other drug use is discontinued, the patient should undergo behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy usually involves individual or group counseling, family counseling and anger management classes. Many patients also find that support groups are helpful in encouraging abstinence.
Step 4: Prevent steroid addiction relapse
Immediately following successful steroid treatment, continuing care and monitoring systems should be established to prevent relapse.
The importance of professional treatment in steroid addiction recovery
Because of the adverse side effects of quitting steroid abuse (including increased risk of depression and suicide) steroid addiction can be difficult to overcome without the help of trained medical professionals. Thus, steroid addiction treatment should be completed in a rehab facility that can provide trained medical supervision and comprehensive care.