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How do anabolic steroids differ from corticosteroids?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
The steroids that athletes (and athlete wannabes) use and abuse to get stronger are anabolic steroids. They're called anabolic because anabolism is the constructive aspect of metabolism—the metabolism that builds cells and tissues. (Catabolism is the deconstructive counterpart.) The anabolic steroids have muscle-building effects similar to that of natural testosterone.

Prednisone is called a glucocorticoid, which is often altered slightly to corticosteroid (pronounced CORE-ti-coe-STEER-oid). Corticosteroids are synthetic versions of the hormones produced by the outer layer, or cortex, of the adrenal glands. The cortico- in corticosteroid comes from cortex. Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatories and are used to treat diseases caused by an overactive immune system.

In temporal arteritis, cells of the immune system attack arteries in your head (including your brain). This attack causes pain and sometimes redness and swelling around the temporal arteries, which lie beneath the skin just above and to the side of your eyes. Treatment with corticosteroids reliably reduces the pain and swelling of the temporal arteries. It may prevent a more serious symptom—sudden blindness—that comes from the immune system attacking arteries deeper inside the head.

Corticosteroids are widely used in medicine, but they must also be used judiciously. By damping down the immune system, they can make people more vulnerable to getting infections. They also may cause other side effects. But when used properly, corticosteroids can work wonders.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.