This class of drugs might have life-saving effects on covid-19 patients. But what exactly is it like to take steroids? Here is my story with using them for almost a whole year.

Despite the suspected benefits of steroids for cases of covid-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against their use for anyone other than the most critical patients. 

This leads to the question, if steroids are cheap and widely available, why are they reserved only for the seriously ill? What about mild and moderate cases of covid-19? Can the side effects be that bad?

Before continuing, let’s be clear – I’m talking about corticosteroids. Not to be confused with anabolic steroids, which have vastly different effects on the body.

As someone who was on corticosteroids for almost a year, I have first-hand experience of their full array of outcomes. So what are the ups and downs of these life-saving drugs?

The benefits of corticosteroids

Steroids have a track record of knocking bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis into remission. They are also effective in treating asthma, eczema and hay fever, among many other conditions.

While I was extremely unwell with ulcerative colitis, a strong daily dose of prednisone (a type of steroid) was used to treat the disease. An unexpected side effect was my eczema cleared up and I had no hay fever for the first time in years.

Clinical trial findings published yesterday (Wed 2 Sept) confirmed hopes corticosteroids could have a life-saving impact on severely ill covid-19 cases.

The WHO had already welcomed preliminary results from the UK regarding steroid use for covid-19. However, it has been clear this applies only to the most severe cases.

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White pills pile up. Photo Credit: Pixabay

How steroids work

Steroids suppress your immune system, which in the early stages of coronavirus isn’t helpful. By taking steroids during a mild case, you would expose yourself to the negative side effects without any potential upside.

However, in severe cases of covid-19 your immune system can go into overdrive. Many patients die from this kind of overreaction to infection rather than directly from the virus. Treating covid-19 with steroids could therefore save eight in every 100 critically ill people.

Prednisone displayed small benefits but two other steroids – dexamethasone and hydrocortisone – were shown to be the most effective.

According to chief executive Sir Simon Stevens, the NHS will now: “Take immediate action to ensure patients who could benefit from treatment with hydrocortisone do so, adding a further weapon in the armoury in the worldwide fight against covid-19.” Dexamethasone is already in use.

What is it like to take steroids?

The consultant who first prescribed me steroids described them as a “dirty drug”. When choosing to use steroids, there are significant upsides and downsides.

Obviously, if they save your life, they are worth it. However for anyone not on a ventilator who is considering steroid medication, consider these side effects.

My face swelled up to almost double its normal size. I had the sweats. Spots broke out across my face, chest and back. I had the shakes. Sleeping more than two hours a night was a distant dream. My memory fogged and I repeated conversations week on week.

Weaning off the steroids, my face remained ballooned. Photo Credit: Jack Turley

With the largest doses – when I was moved on to hydrocortisone – my joints became so brittle I required assistance walking to the toilet. Then, trying to wean off them, my energy levels plummeted. The list of adverse effects goes on. 

Yes, it’s great that steroids have another use. They are miraculous drugs – but they come at a price. Believe the hype, but don’t exaggerate it. Let’s leave the global stock of this cheap and (for now) widely available medicine to those who desperately need it.

For more information or if you have any concerns, contact your GP or the NHS.

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