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Corticosteroids

Key points

  • Corticosteroids are a man-made (synthetic) type of steroid hormone.
  • Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids to reduce any inflammation in your body. They do this by suppressing your immune system.
  • There are many different types of corticosteroid; your doctor will prescribe the most suitable one for you.

Corticosteroids are a man-made (synthetic) type of steroid. Steroids are hormones that are made in your body

Why would I take corticosteroids?

Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids to help reduce any inflammation or swelling in your body. They do this by suppressing your immune system. There are many different types of corticosteroids. They can be taken as tablets, through an inhaler, as an injection or used as creams, ointments and drops.

Conditions that may benefit from corticosteroids include the following.

Corticosteroids can also be used to prevent your immune system from rejecting a donated organ if you have had a transplant operation.

What are the main types of corticosteroids?

There are different types of corticosteroids including:

  • inhaled corticosteroids – you can take these using an inhaler
  • oral corticosteroids – you can swallow these as tablets, or you may be able to have them as a drink (soluble tablet)
  • topical corticosteroids – these include drops for your eyes, creams that you apply to your skin or sprays and drops for your nose
  • injected corticosteroids – your doctor will inject these directly into your bloodstream, into a joint or around a tendon

Your doctor will advise you which type of corticosteroid is best for you.

How do corticosteroids work?

Much like the steroid hormones your body produces, corticosteroids maintain your blood sugar levels and balance the levels of salts and water in your body. Corticosteroids can also suppress your immune system, and so reduce swelling, or inflammation.

Corticosteroids work by lowering the amount of white blood cells (T lymphocytes and neutrophils) that your body normally produces to fight off infections. They also block the action of molecules that cause inflammation, called prostaglandins.

How to take corticosteroids

You can take corticosteroids in many different ways. You can apply them as a cream, take them as a tablet, as an inhaler, eye drops or nasal spray. You can also take some corticosteroids as an enema − a liquid that you insert into your rectum (back passage). Alternatively, your healthcare professional may give you an injection of corticosteroids.

If you have been taking corticosteroids for more than three weeks, you should gradually begin to reduce your dose before you stop taking them completely. Speak to your doctor before you stop taking corticosteroids.

Always ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

Special care

Taking corticosteroid tablets for a long time can make you more at risk of developing infections, particularly chickenpox, measles and shingles. Try to minimise how much close contact you have with anyone with chickenpox, measles or shingles if you're taking corticosteroids long-term. If you haven’t had these infections before, and you have recently come into contact with someone who has them, contact your GP for advice.

Oral corticosteroids can also reduce the effects of medicines used to control diabetes. You may find that your blood sugar levels rise for a few days after you’ve had an injection of corticosteroids. If you have diabetes and are prescribed oral corticosteroids, speak to your GP or doctor for advice.

If you're prescribed corticosteroid tablets for longer than three weeks, you will be given a steroid treatment card. This card explains how much corticosteroids you’re taking and for how long. It will also explain how to minimise your risk of getting any side-effects. Speak to your doctor if you think that you need a steroid treatment card.

Side-effects of corticosteroids

Side-effects are the unwanted effects of taking a medicine. If you have side-effects, it's important to talk to your doctor before you stop taking it. This section doesn't include every possible side-effect of corticosteroids. Always ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

You're unlikely to get side-effects from corticosteroids if you're only taking them occasionally or if they’re only used in a specific area of your body. For example, you’re unlikely to get any side-effects if you apply a corticosteroid cream to a small area of skin. However, using some of the stronger corticosteroids as a cream long-term may make your skin thinner and increase your risk of getting stretch marks.

Inhaled corticosteroids can increase your risk of developing oral thrush. This is a fungal infection which affects your mouth. You can reduce your risk by rinsing your mouth with water after using your inhaler. Your GP may also prescribe you a spacer device to use with your inhaler, which can also help to lower your risk.

If you take a high dose of oral corticosteroids for a long time, you may be more likely to get side-effects such as:

  • changes in mood
  • an increase in blood pressure
  • stomach ulcers
  • diabetes (you may develop diabetes for the first time, or if you already have diabetes, your condition may get worse)
  • osteoporosis
  • weight gain
  • stunted growth (in children and young people)

Taking oral corticosteroids for a long time may also cause you to develop Cushing's syndrome. This is a condition that can cause a range of symptoms including acne, puffiness around your face (moon face) and stretch marks. However, the condition usually goes away once you stop taking oral corticosteroids.

Allergies

It's possible to have an allergic reaction to topical corticosteroids. This can cause your skin to become red and itchy. If you think you may be having an allergic reaction to a topical corticosteroid, contact your GP.

Interactions of corticosteroids with other medicines

Check with your GP or pharmacist before you take any other medicine or herbal remedies at the same time as corticosteroids.

Names of common corticosteroids

The main corticosteroids are shown in the table below.

All medicines have a generic name. Many medicines also have one or more brand names. Generic names are in lower case, whereas brand names start with a capital letter.

Generic names Brand names

alclometasone
dipropionate

Modrasone

beclometasone
dipropionate

Beclometasone, Asmabec Clickhaler, Clenil Modulite, Qvar

Betamethasone sodium phosphate

Betnesol, Vistamethasone

betamethasone
esters

Betamethasone Valerate, Betacap, Betesil, Betnovate, Bettamousse, Diprosone, Diprosalic, Fucibet, Lotriderm

budesonide

Budesonide, Rhinocourt Aqua

clobetasol
propionate

Clarelux, Dermovate, Etrivex

clobetasone butyrate Eumovate, Trimovate

deflazacort

Calcort

dexamethasone

Dexamethasone

diflucortolone
valerate

Nerisone, Nerisone Forte

fludrocortisone
acetate

Florinef

fludroxycortide

Haelan

flunisolide

Syntaris

fluocinolone
acetonide

Synalar

fluocinonide

Metosyn

fluocortolone

Ultralanum Plain

fluticasone
propionate

Cutivate, Flixonase, Flixonase Nasule, Nasofan, Dysmista, Avamys, Flixotide, Flutiform, Seretide

hydrocortisone

Alphaderm, Calmurid HC, Canesten HC, Daktacort, Dioderm, Fucidin H, Hydromol HC Intensive, Mildison, Nystaform-HC, Terra-Cortril, Timodine

hydrocortisone
butyrate

Locoid, Locoid Crelo

methylprednisolone

Medrone, Solu-Medrone, Depo-Medrone

mometasone furoate

Asmanex, Elocon, Nasonex

prednisolone

Prednisolone, Predsol, Pred Forte

triamcinolone

Kenalog

triamcinolone
acetonide

Aureocort, Nasacort

 Reviewed by Hemali Parekh, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2014.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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  • Publication date: October 2011

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