What are steroids?

‘Steroids’ is the accepted shortening of the term corticosteroids. Steroids in general are found naturally in plants and animals, but corticosteroids are those particular steroids secreted into the bloodstream by the adrenal gland. Many are now also synthesised in the laboratory.


How are they used to manage MS?

The role of steroids in managing relapses has been accepted for many years. Steroids are often prescribed for treating acute relapses for people with relapsing remitting MS. The evidence seems clear that they shorten recovery time from individual relapses. Steroids are used in a different way to disease modifying treatments and are used for short term relapse management. DMDs do not appear to have much effect on improving the recovery from an acute relapse but work to prevent them in the first instance.


Research into steroid use to manage MS relapses

Studies of people with MS relapses who are being treated with steroids show that the steroids work by decreasing the levels of the ‘bad’ immune chemicals and by making the cell membranes of the white cells more pliable and less sticky. It is interesting to note how similar this is to the mechanism in which diet and essential fatty acids supplements work, but without side-effects. Other evidence suggests that there is also an effect on the way the brain interprets the messages coming to it from the body’s nerves. MRI studies also show that steroids significantly decrease the amount of swelling around individual MS lesions, causing better nerve transmission through these affected areas. These effects are seen on MRI within hours of taking the first dose.


Side effects

Steroids are safe when used in short courses of 5-7 days or less. A few rare cases of bone problems have been reported, but these are exceedingly unlikely. When used continually long term they can cause serious problems including weight gain, fluid retention, increased risk of infection, risk of stomach ulcers, muscle weakness, changes in behaviour including depression or psychosis, cataracts and osteoporosis. Long-term use is not a good idea in any condition, unless there is no real alternative.


What to do about a bad reaction to medication

Reports from health professionals are preferred as doctors and other prescribers, pharmacists and nurses usually are able to provide more detailed information about the medications in use and other medical history from patient records that are helpful in evaluating the adverse reaction. However anyone may report a suspected adverse event or reaction to medication taken to the Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring (CARM).

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