9th February, 20228 min read

How steroid tablets work: uses, benefits and side effects

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:
Amelia Glean
Amelia Glean
Last reviewed: 09/02/2022
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

What are steroid tablets?

Steroid tablets are medicines that help reduce inflammation in your body. They’re prescribed for conditions such as allergies, inflammatory bowel diseases, joint or muscle problems and diseases that affect your immune system (autoimmune diseases).
They’re also known as oral steroids, steroid pills or corticosteroid tablets. You swallow them as tablets or, in some cases, a liquid.

Steroids are hormones that are found naturally in your body. Steroid tablets are man-made copies of these hormones that are used to treat the symptoms of your condition.

Which conditions do steroid tablets treat?

You might be prescribed steroid tablets to improve your symptoms if you have a medical condition such as:

## Which conditions do steroid tablets not treat?

Like steroid injections, steroid tablets are ‘systemic’ steroids – which means they send medicine around your whole body, rather than just focusing on one part. This can help treat the symptoms of conditions that affect your whole body or large systems in your body like the digestive system. For example, inflammatory bowel diseases and autoimmune diseases.

For conditions where you only need the anti-inflammatory effect of steroids on a specific area of your body, steroid pills won’t be used. Instead you’re likely to be prescribed steroid creams or steroid nasal sprays.

What are the different types of steroid tablets?

In most countries, you usually need a prescription from a doctor for steroid tablets.

There are 2 main groups of steroid tablets. The most common group is glucocorticoids, which are used to help stop inflammation. They include:

  • prednisolone
  • betamethasone
  • dexamethasone
  • hydrocortisone
  • methylprednisolone
  • deflazacort

Of those, prednisolone is the most commonly used steroid tablet. It’s often prescribed to help reduce inflammation in long-term conditions like psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

The other group of steroid tablets is mineralocorticoids, which includes fludrocortisone. Mineralocorticoids help your body replace steroids that it may have stopped making naturally.

They may be prescribed to treat conditions like:

  • Addison’s disease
  • congenital adrenal hyperplasia, group of genetic conditions that affect the adrenal glands near your kidneys
  • hypopituitarism, a rare condition that occurs when the pituitary gland near your brain doesn’t produce enough hormones

What are the side effects of steroid tablets?

Steroid tablets are safe for the majority of people if you take the recommended dose. Before taking them, you should always tell your doctor if you:

  • have ever had an allergic reaction to steroids
  • have an infection (including eye infections)
  • have recently had, or are about to have, any vaccinations
  • have an open wound that hasn’t healed yet
  • are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying for a baby
  • have any other conditions, such as diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure (hypertension) or problems with your liver, heart or kidneys

You may get some side effects from steroid tablets, especially if you’re on a high dose or take them for more than 3 weeks. Common side effects of steroid tablets can include:

  • indigestion or heartburn
  • an increase in appetite, which may lead to weight gain
  • sweating a lot
  • feeling restless
  • trouble sleeping
  • excessive hair growth
  • behaviour changes, such as feeling irritable or anxious

Tips for managing common side effects

Many side effects can be managed by following a few relatively simple tips. For example, if your treatment can result in sleeping problems, try taking it in the mornings – rather than at night – so it’s less likely to upset your bedtime routine. Likewise, taking it with food at breakfast may help manage indigestion and stomach complaints.

Why not ask your doctor for advice about the steroid tablets you’ve been prescribed? Your doctor may have more advice about how you can minimise some of the more common side effects.

If you take steroid tablets at a higher dose or for a longer period of time, you’re more likely to get more serious side effects. For example, if you take 40mg of prednisolone for more than 1 week, or if you take steroid tablets for longer than 3 weeks for a condition like polymylagia rheumatica. These side effects may include:

Again, ask your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about potential side effects.

When to see a doctor if you’ve taken steroid tablets

If your dose of steroid tablets is high (for example, 40mg) or if you’ve been taking them for longer than 3 weeks, you’re more likely to get side effects, some of which can be more serious.

You should call a doctor straight away if you’re taking steroid tablets and:

  • your symptoms don’t get better, get worse or come back after treatment
  • you get symptoms you didn’t expect, you feel generally unwell or you’re worried about your symptoms
  • you have an upset stomach, diarrhoea or dark poo that looks like tar
  • you notice changes in your mood or behaviour
  • you notice changes in your eyesight
  • you have muscle pains, muscle weakness or low energy levels
  • you notice swelling in your face or limbs
  • you have a temperature (fever), chills and other signs of infection, such as a sore throat or cough
  • you notice unusual bruising
  • you feel very thirsty or are peeing a lot more than usual

While rare, you should call an ambulance or go to an emergency department if you notice any signs of a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Your health questions answered

Can I take other medicines when I’m taking steroids?

Answered by: the Healthily medical team

“Steroids may affect the way some medicines work, or vice versa, or increase the risk of some side effects. For example, steroids may stop aspirin from working effectively, and taking the 2 medicines together can increase your risk of stomach bleeding. Before you begin a course of steroid tablets, talk to your doctor about any other medications you’re taking, including herbal remedies and supplements.”

Do steroids make you angry?

Answered by: the Healthily medical team

“A change in mood or behaviour is a common side effect of taking steroid tablets. Around 1 in 10 people may experience these changes, which also means that 9 in 10 people don’t notice any changes at all. If you do, you may feel more anxious or down, or just have more mood swings in general. This can happen within a few weeks of starting treatment, or as you’re coming off steroids. The higher the dose, the more intense these changes can be. If this happens and you’re worried about it, talk to your doctor.”

Key takeaways

  • steroid tablets work to reduce inflammation throughout your body
  • they can be used to treat a range of conditions, including Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis
  • there are a few different types of steroid tablets – the most common group is glucocorticoids, which include prednisolone, betamethasone and dexamethasone
  • you might only need to take steroid tablets for a few days or weeks, but sometimes they’re prescribed for longer
  • if you get any side effects that are worrying you, talk to your doctor as soon as possible

How long do steroid tablets take to work and how long do you have to take them?

  • the time it takes for your steroid tablets to work depends on your condition and your dose of medicine. It may take only a few days for some people to feel better. However, even if you don’t notice a difference, the medication may still be helping you. For example, it may be working to stop symptoms either getting worse or coming back
  • how long you should take steroid tablets will also be personal to your situation. Sometimes you may only need steroid tablets for a few weeks – for example, your doctor may prescribe a 5-day course after your first asthma attack. But if you have repeated asthma attacks and other treatments don't help improve your asthma, you might need to take steroid tablets for years, maybe even for the rest of your life. You should always check with your doctor if you aren’t sure
  • it can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking steroid tablets if you’re taking a high dose or if you’ve been taking them for more than 3 weeks. Always speak to your doctor before stopping treatment or changing your dose. Your doctor may recommend gradually reducing your dose over time
  • your doctor may advise carrying a ‘steroid card’ if you’re taking a high dose of more than 40mg or if you’re prescribed them for more than 3 weeks. If you’re badly injured or get seriously ill, your body may not produce enough steroids. The card lets healthcare workers know that you’re taking steroid tablets and you may need extra steroids in an emergency
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