Hormones are substances produced by glands (or organs) that regulate bodily functions and behavior. Steroid hormones are one type that are chemically similar to each other, but may have different biological functions.  For example, the adrenal glands produce an anti-inflammatory steroid similar to cortisone. These steroids 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, like building bone or muscle. Anabolic steroids given by injection, pill, creams or gels are laboratory forms related to testosterone, which is produced in the testes of men and in the adrenal glands in both men and women. These chemicals are recognized for their effects on building muscle. They are only available by a doctor’s prescription. 

Approved Anabloic 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 do not produce enough of their own 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 can create serious health risks, especially for our nation's youth, when used in higher doses than the body normally produces. The abuse of anabolic 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. Among youth who have not attained their natural height, anabolic steroids can stunt their growth. Anabolic steroids should never be taken except 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, competition, and enhance self-esteem, use of anabolic steroids can harm young athletes' bodies as well as their minds.

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 3.5 percent of all high school students in the United States ad 4.8% of 12th grade males reported using anabolic steroids without a doctor’s prescription. Although males are more likely to have used illegal steroids without a prescription than females, girls are also at risk, especially 9th and 10th grade females whose use during 2015 was 3.4%. 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.


Linn Goldberg, MD, FACSM
Professor Emeritus, Oregon Health and Science University

Last Review: August, 2016