If you’re hearing steroids, you might be thinking ‘roid rage’ and misuse by professional athletes. These are one form of steroids but we’re talking about corticosteroids – the ones you produce naturally in your body. 

What do steroids do?

Steroids are hormones made by the adrenal glands which are above your kidneys. Steroids are actually really useful – they control different things in our bodies, such as how we fight diseases and the way we breakdown food. Taking steroids is a common way to fight cancer but it can affect the way you look and feel.

Why do I need steroids?

You might need steroids to:

  • Reduce swelling around the cancer, such as a brain tumour
  • Treat your cancer (often with chemotherapy)
  • Prevent infections after a transplant
  • Ease sickness when you have chemotherapy
  • Increase your appetite.
How do I take steroids?

There are different ways to take them, depending on the type your doctor prescribes. You can either: 

  • Swallow a tablet
  • Take a syrup or tablet that dissolves
  • Have an injection into a vein, muscle (usually your leg or buttock muscle) or the fat under your skin. 

Most people only need to take steroids for a few days or weeks.

If you’re taking steroids for a while, you will get a steroid card to carry in your pocket, purse or wallet. This is important information if you need any kind of medical treatment.

If your disease or treatment stops your own steroid production, you may also be given replacement steroids to stop you feeling unwell. In this situation, low doses are used and you should not get any side effects.

Stopping steroid treatment

Your body will need time to adjust after you’ve had steroid treatment, especially if you’ve been on a long course, or had high doses. When you’ve finished treatment, your doctor will reduce the dose of steroids that you take gradually to make sure your body can cope. Stopping treatment suddenly will make you feel unwell.

Read about the side effects of taking steroids.

Updated March 2018, next review due 2021.