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How do Corticosteroid Medications Work?

Thursday 23 July 2020
4 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is a Corticosteroid?

a. Common Corticosteroid Side Effects

II. How do Corticosteroid Medications Work?

a. Treating Inflammatory Conditions

b. Treating Autoimmune Diseases

c. Treating Allergies

What is a Corticosteroid?

Corticosteroids are versatile medications used to treat several different conditions. Common corticosteroids include prednisone and hydrocortisone. These medications are used to reduce inflammation in the body and to reduce the activity of the immune system. Corticosteroids mimic a natural stress hormone called cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal glands. This hormone is important for several body processes.

Corticosteroids are often taken systematically as oral medications. This means the medication circulates through the bloodstream to treat the whole body or ‘system.’ Corticosteroids also come in the forms of eye drops, ear drops, joint injections, skin creams, and lung inhalers. These local steroid treatments are applied directly to the required area of the body. [1] Corticosteroids are often simply referred to as steroids. However, they are very different from anabolic steroids.


a. Common Corticosteroid Side Effects

All medications have side effects. The range, frequency, and severity of side effects depend on several factors. These include general health, organ function, age, and alcohol intake. Taking medication in higher doses or for an extended period of time also increases the risk of side effects. [2] Not all corticosteroids have the same side effects. They will differ depending on the medication and how it is delivered. Common side effects of corticosteroids include:

  • Mood swings, confusion, memory problems or behavior changes
  • Increased pressure in the eyes
  • High blood pressure
  • Weight gain and changes to the location of body fat
  • Swelling in the legs caused by fluid retention [3]

When taking a corticosteroid for an extended period of time, there are also other considerations:

  • Children may experience a slowed rate of growth and worsen the effects of some infections.
  • Older adults may increase the risk of developing high blood pressure or osteoporosis.
  • Breastfeeding adults may cause growth issues for the nursing infant. [4]

How do Corticosteroid Medications Work?

As mentioned, corticosteroids work in a similar way to the natural hormone cortisol. They are human-made drugs and are usually prescribed in doses that are higher to your body’s normal levels. When the levels of corticosteroids exceed the body’s normal levels, then the medication works to subdue inflammation. Reducing inflammation can help relieve pain and symptoms caused by inflammatory conditions. [3]

Corticosteroids such as prednisone can treat several different conditions. Corticosteroids are used primarily to treat two types of conditions: inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. However, these medications may also be used to treat other conditions. The anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects of these medications depend on your dose. Typically, the immunosuppressive effect of a corticosteroid occurs when higher doses are given. [5]

a. Treating Inflammatory Conditions

Corticosteroids are often used to treat inflammatory conditions such as myositis, systemic vasculitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. For many chronic inflammatory diseases, corticosteroids are the most effective form of treatment. [6]

hands with rheumatoid arthritis

Inflammation occurs naturally when white blood cells, and other substances, protect the body against bacteria, viruses, and infections. Inflammatory conditions occur when the body’s immune system does not function as it should.

Common signs of inflammation include pain, swelling, redness, and warmth in particular areas of the body.

Corticosteroid medications are potent anti-inflammatory drugs. They relieve the symptoms of inflammatory conditions by reducing the production of natural chemicals that cause inflammation. Low doses of corticosteroids can provide pain relief. Higher doses may be used to help aid recovery after a flare-up of symptoms. Higher doses of corticosteroids should only be used on a short-term basis. [1]

b. Treating Autoimmune Diseases

Corticosteroids may also be prescribed to treat autoimmune diseases. These include multiple sclerosis (MS), Addison’s disease, and myasthenia gravis. Some conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are both inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

Autoimmune diseases are conditions that are caused by the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking healthy body cells. [7] These disorders occur when the body’s immune system cannot tell the difference between healthy body cells and foreign cells. These diseases may target a specific organ or the entire body. [8]

Decreasing inflammation helps prevent the immune system from damaging healthy cells and organs. Additionally, corticosteroids reduce the activity and effectiveness of the immune system.

Corticosteroid medications may also be used following an organ transplant. Reducing the activity of the immune system can reduce the chance of your body rejecting the organ and the unfamiliar foreign cells.

a tissue box

c. Treating Allergies

Corticosteroids treat a very wide spectrum of conditions. In addition to inflammatory conditions and autoimmune diseases, corticosteroids are also common in the treatment of allergies and allergy symptoms. This includes hives and hay fever. [4] Often when treating allergy symptoms, corticosteroids will be in a local form such as nose sprays, skin creams, or inhalers. Depending on how severe the allergy is, corticosteroids may be taken on a long-term basis or as a short-term treatment.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.