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Overview

Hormones are substances produced by glands (or organs) that travel to various sites in the body to affect bodily functions. Different types of steroid hormones, a class of hormones chemically similar to each other, have different functions.  For example, the adrenal glands produce an anti-inflammatory steroid similar to cortisone. Cortisone may be prescribed to treat asthma, rashes, and various kinds of swelling or inflammation.

Another kind of steroid is called an anabolic steroid. The term anabolic means building up of a bodily substance. Anabolic steroids given by injection, pill, creams or gels are laboratory forms related to testosterone, which is produced in the testes in men and in the adrenal glands in both men and women. These chemicals are recognized for their effects on building muscle.

Approved Steroid Uses

Synthetic (laboratory-made) anabolic steroids have some accepted uses as prescribed medications, but they are best used in specific situations and, in some cases, for a limited period of time. For example, anabolic steroids can help rebuild tissues that have become weakened because of serious injury or illness. They also can be used to treat certain types of anemia and breast cancer or to replace testosterone among men who have low testosterone. These drugs can be used to treat a rare genetic problem that causes episodes of swelling, called angioedema.

While anabolic steroids have a beneficial role in the body, these powerful drugs are creating serious health risks, especially for our nation's youth, when used in higher doses than the body normally produces. The abuse of steroids has evolved into a significant health problem in the United States.

Anabolic Steroid Abuse

Anabolic steroids attract young people and adults, who take these drugs to enhance athletic performance and improve their body image. Even though they may take these steroids with good intentions, they may not understand that the drugs are potentially harmful. These problems include aggressive behavior, liver disease, and increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers.  Anabolic steroids also can cause permanent undesirable changes in sex characteristics, such as breast growth in men and increased facial hair and deepened voice in women. Anabolic steroids should never be taken except by prescription while under a doctor's care.

Anabolic steroid use among professional and Olympic athletes is believed to be widespread. Some athletes use steroids to build muscle mass, strength, and speed and to assist in recovery from training and injuries. Others use them to improve their physical appearance.

High-profile athletes who use anabolic steroids may become role models to children and teens because of the athletes' appearance and success in sports. Their use of performance-enhancing substances can influence the behavior of some teens, who begin to use steroids themselves. Although sports can build skills in cooperation and competition, and sports performance can enhance self-esteem, use of anabolic steroids can harm young athletes' bodies as well as their minds.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 3.6 percent of high school students in the United State reported using anabolic steroids without a prescription. Unfortunately, use may be increasing. The highest users in this most recent national study of 9th to 12th graders was highest among 9th grade students, at 4.2 percent. Although males are more likely to have used illegal steroids without a prescription than females, girls are also at risk. For young women, body image is a powerful persuader, often based on inappropriate entertainment and media models. These drugs can help to decrease body fat, which is part of their appeal. But most women will not want their masculine-appearing side effects.

Editor:

Linn Goldberg, MD, FACSM
Oregon Health and Science University

Last Review: June 2013