Corticosteroids

Medications that mimic certain hormones made naturally by the adrenal glands that regulate several physiologic functions throughout the body. Corticosteroids, which include cortisone, hydrocortisone and prednisone, suppress inflammation and the immune response, making them useful for treating a host of conditions including rashes, allergies, asthma, systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. Corticosteroid medications may be taken orally, by inhaler, as a nasal spray, topically as an ointment or cream or by injection.

Oral steroids can have many side effects, including glaucoma (damage to the optic nerve caused by elevated pressure in the eyes), edema (fluid retention that may cause swelling in the lower legs), increased blood pressure, mood swings and weight gain. Long-term use may lead to additional problems such as cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye), increased risk of infection and osteoporosis (bone thinning, which increases the risk of fracture).

To lower the risk of these side effects, medical experts suggest taking the smallest possible dose that will relieve symptoms for the shortest possible time. Your doctor may suggest taking the medication every other day instead of every day or switching from the oral form to another mode of administration, such as inhaled steroids for asthma or topical creams or ointments for rashes. When a patient is discontinuing a steroid medication, medical experts recommend tapering off gradually to avoid such side effects as fatigue, body aches and lightheadedness.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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