Glucocorticoids are powerful medicines that fight inflammation and work with your immune system to treat wide range of health problems.
Your body actually makes its own glucocorticoids. These hormones have many jobs, such as controlling how your cells use sugar and fat and curbing inflammation. Sometimes, though, they aren’t enough. That’s when the man-made versions can help.
How They Work
Inflammation is your immune system’s response to an injury or infection. It makes your body produce more white blood cells and chemicals to help you heal. Sometimes, though, that response is too strong and can even be dangerous. Asthma, for example, is inflammation in your airways that can keep you from breathing.
If you have an autoimmune disease, your body triggers inflammation by mistake. That means your immune system attacks healthy cells and tissue as if they were viruses or bacteria.
Glucocorticoids keep your body from pumping out so many of the chemicals involved in inflammation. They can also dial back your immune system’s response by changing the way white blood cells work.
Conditions They Treat
Glucocorticoids treat many conditions that are caused by inflammation, such as:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Crohn’s disease and other types of inflammatory bowel disease
- Eczema and other skin conditions
- Multiple sclerosis
Doctors also prescribe glucocorticoids for people who get organ transplants. After the procedure, your immune system sees the new organ as an invader and attacks it. Drugs that turn down your immune system, such as glucocorticoids, can keep your body from rejecting the new organ.
Types of Glucocorticoids
A glucocorticoid is a kind of steroid. The type you need depends on the specific health condition you have.
Among the most common ones are:
- Cortisone: a shot that can ease inflammation in your joints
- Prednisone and dexamethasone: pills that treat allergies, arthritis, asthma, vision problems, and many other conditions
- Triamcinolone: a cream that treats skin conditions
- Budesonide: a pill for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, autoimmune diseases that affect your digestive tract
How glucocorticoids affect you will depend on the specific drug or the dose you take. For example, if you only take one every so often for flare-ups of joint inflammation, you may not have any side effects.
Common problems include:
- Weight gain
- Feeling very hungry
- Water retention or swelling
- Mood swings
- Blurred vision
- Feeling nervous or restless
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle weakness
- Stomach irritation
What Are the Risks?
It’s usually safe for most people to take glucocorticoids for a little while. But using them for a long time can cause health problems, including:
- Osteoporosis, when bones get weaker and break easily
- High blood pressure
- Cushing's disease
If you notice any changes in how you feel while you take these drugs, be sure to tell your doctor.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of prednisone and other glucocorticoids. These medications may be a slight risk to your baby. However, if you’re taking them because you have a serious health problem or a life-threatening disease, staying on your treatment may outweigh the chance that the drugs will harm your baby.
Tell your doctor if you have any of these medical problems before you start taking a glucocorticoid:
- Cataracts or glaucoma
- Heart attack or congestive heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Thyroid disease
- Peptic ulcer
- Depression or other mood disorders
- Kidney disease
- Adrenal gland problems