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Steroid Use: Hitting Closer to Home

Olympic scandals spotlight performance-enhancing drugs as number of kids using them grows.
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WebMD Feature

It's hard to miss: Performance-enhancing drug use in America is out of control.

Many, but by no means all, of these drugs are anabolic steroids. In the body, they turn into the male sex hormone testosterone, boosting muscle growth and strength. Others include the blood booster EPO, human growth hormone, and insulin. The full list covers nine pages. All are safe when used, as intended, to treat illness. None are safe when used to improve athletic performance -- or, increasingly, when taken to improve one's appearance.

Illicit use of these medications isn't new. We've become apathetic about professional athletes' use of steroids and fashion models' use of stimulants. We're still surprised, but no longer shocked, to hear that elite athletes in world sports competitions are using state-of-the-art pharmacology to beat drug tests.

What may still spur us to action is concern for our kids. But if we're going to act, the hour is getting late. Use of performance-enhancing drugs is widespread -- and increasing -- among teens. Kids as young as10 are getting into the act.

"The latest figures are absolutely startling about kids using these drugs," Charles Yesalis, ScD, MPH, tells WebMD. Yesalis is professor of health policy and administration, and exercise and sports science at Penn State University. He's studied performance-enhancing drug use for more than 25 years. Among those he has served as a consultant to include: U.S. Senate committees, FDA, CDC, NFL Players Association, U.S. Olympic Committee, and the NCAA.

Younger and Younger Kids Use Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Why is Yesalis startled? In the late 1980s, his research team published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that at any one time nearly 500,000 kids had used steroids. Now anabolic steroids aren't something you take just once -- that would have no effect. Steroids are used in six- to 12-week cycles.

But that's not the scariest part. In June 2004, the CDC published its latest figures on self-reported drug use among young people. It's called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance or YRBS report.

"We had been looking at 1% to 2% of girls and 5% to 6% of guys who'd used steroids," Yesalis says. "Now the girls are over 5%. You are talking more than a million kids now. From 2001 to 2003, girls' steroid use went up 300%. Guys went up 20% or so."

And the kids taking these drugs are getting younger. Among 12th graders, 3.3% of girls and 6.4% of boys have used steroids at least once. But 7.3% of ninth grade girls -- and 6.9% of ninth grade boys -- have already been using these hormones.

Anabolic steroid use means that a child is flooding his or her body with a synthetic version of the male sex hormone testosterone. In boys, this has an array of ill effects. The effects of these performance drugs may be even more devastating in younger children. But in girls, the effects are even more harmful including menstrual abnormalities, deepening of the voice, acne, increased body hair especially in a male pattern, and enlargement of the clitoris.

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