March 16, 2005 - If it makes athletes muscular and powerful, can steroids really be all that bad for you?
In your heart of hearts, you know steroid abuse can't be good. And your heart is telling you the truth. Even when used to treat medical conditions, anabolic steroids have all kinds of common side effects.
What, exactly, is so bad about steroids? WebMD is here with the FAQ.
What Are Steroids?
Don't confuse anabolic steroids with corticosteroids, warns physiatrist Kenneth Mautner, MD, of Emory University. Anabolic steroids are used to build up muscle. Corticosteroids are used to dampen overactive immune responses and reduce swelling.
The anabolic steroids abused by athletes are synthetic versions of testosterone, a male hormone. Both men and women naturally produce testosterone. But like all hormones -- which regulate the body's most basic functions -- throwing one's testosterone out of balance can have wide-ranging consequences.
Why Do Doctors Prescribe Steroids?
Doctors prescribe anabolic steroids to treat certain specific medical conditions. For example, they may be used to treat the muscle wasting seen in AIDS. Steroids may also be used to treat delayed puberty or loss of testicular function.
Mautner notes that doctors are not allowed to prescribe steroids to enhance a person's athletic performance.
Are Steroids Illegal?
Yes. Without a doctor's prescription for a medical condition, it's against the law to possess, sell, or distribute anabolic steroids.
Legal prosecution can be a serious side effect of illicit steroid use. Under federal law, first-time simple possession of anabolic steroids carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. For first-offense trafficking in steroids, the maximum penalty is five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Second offenses double this penalty. In addition to federal penalties, state laws also prohibit illegal anabolic steroid use.
Anabolic steroids are powerful hormones. They affect the entire body. Some of the side effects are common to all users. Other side effects are specifically related to your sex and age.
Men who take anabolic steroids may:
- Develop breasts
- Get painful erections
- Have their testicles shrink
- Have decreased sperm count
- Become infertile
- Become impotent
Women who take anabolic steroids may:
Both men and women who take anabolic steroids may:
- Get acne
- Have an oily scalp and skin
- Get yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
- Become bald
- Have tendon rupture
- Have heart attacks
- Have an enlarged heart
- Develop significant risk of liver disease and liver cancer
- Have high levels of "bad" cholesterol
- Have mood swings
- Fly into rages
- Suffer delusions
Teens who take anabolic steroids may:
- Have short height due to arrested bone growth
- Girls may suffer long-term masculinization
Since steroids are often taken by injections, there is also the risk of getting HIV or hepatitis infection from an unsterile needle or syringe.
"There are a lot of side effects of steroids," Mautner tells WebMD. "They are not good for you. It is like Russian roulette. Five people may take them and have no long-term problem. The sixth may end up dead."