Corticosteroid Drugs: What Are They?

There's a wide variety of applications for Corticosteroid drugs due to the number of physiological processes they can impact.
Corticosteroid Drugs: What Are They?
María Vijande

Reviewed and approved by the pharmacist María Vijande.

Written by María Vijande

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Corticosteroid drugs are very powerful drugs. Therefore, you should always take them under medical supervision. You can’t and shouldn’t get this kind of medication without a prescription.

What Are They?

These medications include a variety of hormones that belong to the steroid group, produced by the cortex of the adrenal glands. Corticosteroids have involvement in a wide variety of physiological mechanisms, including the following:

  • Inflammation processes
  • Immune system
  • Metabolism of carbohydrates.

There are artificially synthesized Corticosteroid drugs for certain therapeutic purposes, such as the treatment of Crohn’s disease and also for joint pain.

Corticosteroid Drugs

Types and Indications

A person looking at corticosteroid drugs.
Corticosteroid drugs are subject to medical prescription, so in no case should you use them to self-medicate.

Companies manufacture these drugs artificially. Therefore, they come in many different forms, depending on their use.

Here are a few of the different types:

  • Inhaling corticosteroid medications. This form is used for asthma or in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Also, inhalers are often present as emergency measures in some cases of acute bronchitis. These are long-term and require medical supervision and follow-up.
  • Oral corticosteroids come as tablets. The main application for this type is the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
  • Topical corticosteroid drugs. These are used in cases of eczema, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis. They’re also administered to decrease inflammations.
  • Injectable corticosteroids. This is the kind that’s administered intravenously is for certain systemic diseases of the autoimmune type. Similarly, the ones administered intramuscularly are mainly for the treatment of joint pain.

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Mechanism of Action and Pharmacological Actions

An illustration of osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a common risk of taking corticosteroid drugs due to their negative impact on calcium reserve.

Corticosteroid drugs must enter the cytoplasm, where they’ll bind to receptors. Once they form the hormone-receptor complex, they enter into the nucleus of the cell and interact with DNA. The result of this interaction is the synthesis of the specific protein that’ll carry out the desired function.

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Corticosteroid Drugs: Side Effects

A doctor checking someone's blood pressure.
Due to an increase in minerals such as sodium, added to water retention, edema and high blood pressure can occur.

Because these drugs act in a large number of physiological processes, the side effects of these drugs also vary.

Overall, their side effects are similar to their use. Therefore, the main trigger of their reactions is improper intake and abrupt suppression of treatment.

Possible Side Effects

Here are a few of the most common side effects:

  • Typically, these drugs affect the immune system. Therefore, your susceptibility to infections increases because these drugs have an immunosuppressive agent.
  • In addition, they also have adverse effects on skeletal muscle and can trigger myopathy, osteoporosis and bone necrosis.
  • They may also trigger gastrointestinal problems, such as pancreatitis and peptic ulcer. These two adverse reactions are the most typical.
  • They can also produce hypertension due to fluid retention as a cardiovascular adverse effect.
  • Furthermore, acne, hirsutism, stretch marks, and ecchymosis are some of the most common adverse reactions of corticosteroids.
  • Also, alterations in mood such as feelings of euphoria, insomnia, depression, and psychosis are other neuropsychiatric adverse reactions. These symptoms may also appear when under treatment with corticosteroid medications. However, they’re less likely. Therefore, they’re less frequent.
  • Ophthalmological problems such as cataracts and glaucoma may also appear.
  • Besides, there is an increased risk of endocrinological and metabolic problems. Among the latter, there’s also glucose intolerance, diabetes, weight gain, and hyperlipidemia.
  • Finally, there’s an increased risk of growth suppression due to their close relationship with growth hormone. This includes suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal gland axis, among other effects.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Warrington, T. P., & Bostwick, J. M. (2006). Psychiatric adverse effects of corticosteroids. Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
  • Grau, P. S. (2006). Corticoides tópicos. Actualización. Medicina Cutanea Ibero-Latino-Americana.
  • Jares, E., & Pignataro, O. (2002). Mecanismos moleculares de acción de los corticoides. Archivos de Alergia e Inmunología Clínica.
  • Lipworth, B. J. (1999). Systemic Adverse Effects of Inhaled Corticosteroid Therapy. Archives of Internal Medicine.
  • Frew, J. W., & Murrell, D. F. (2012). Corticosteroid Use in Autoimmune Blistering Diseases. Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.