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Steroid facts

Marie Law Alphabiolabs

By Marie Law, Head of Toxicology at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 08/03/2023

In this article, we take a closer look at steroids, what they are, how they are used, the side effects of steroid use and more.
Table of contents
  • What are steroids?
  • What are the street names for steroids?
  • What do steroids look like?
  • How are steroids used?
  • How do people behave when they take steroids?
  • What are the side effects of steroids?
  • What happens when you use steroids with other drugs?
  • What legislation covers anabolic steroids?
  • Are steroids used in medicine?
  • How long does it take for steroids to show up in a drug test?

What are steroids?

Steroids is the term used for drugs that mimic natural hormones which regulate and control how the body works and develops.

The term covers two very different groups of medications: corticosteroids and anabolic steroids.

These groups have different ways of working in the body, with the main difference being corticosteroids are catabolic (breakdown) and anabolic steroids promote growth (are anabolic).

Catabolic corticosteroids are synthetic, anti-inflammatory medications designed to mimic hormones produced by the adrenal glands – the two small glands found just above the kidneys.

They are prescribed and available over the counter to treat a range of conditions including eczema, muscle, and joint pains such as arthritis and tennis elbow, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma.

Examples of prescription steroids include prednisolone, beclometasone inhalers, fluticasone nasal spray/drops and hydrocortisone skin cream.

Anabolic steroids, which work differently to corticosteroids, are often misused illegally to improve athletic performance, and increase muscle mass.

Anabolic androgenic steroids are manufactured drugs designed to mimic the effects of testosterone, the sex hormone mainly produced in the gonads – the glands involved in reproduction (testicles or ovaries).

Although both men and women produce testosterone, these levels are typically much higher in people assigned male at birth. Testosterone is also the hormone responsible for the development of physical characteristics that are commonly associated with people assigned male at birth, such as the appearance of facial hair.

Anabolic steroids can only be issued by pharmacists with a prescription. People who misuse anabolic steroids as performance-enhancing drugs are known to experience serious side effects and can also become dependent on them, leading to long-term addiction issues.

What are the street names for steroids?

Some common street names for anabolic steroids include:

  • Roids
  • Smart drugs
  • Nootropics
  • Juice
  • Melanotan

What do steroids look like?

Steroids are available in many forms including syrups, liquids, creams, lotions and gels, tablets, and nasal sprays.

Anabolic steroids, the most commonly misused steroids, are available as a solution for injection, as well as in tablet, cream and gel form.

How are steroids used?

Steroids are used in different ways, depending on the type of drug and which condition(s) they are being used to treat.

They can be injected but can also be ingested in tablet or syrup form, inhaled as a nasal spray, or absorbed into the skin as a lotion, gel, or cream.

Anabolic steroids are usually injected into muscle or ingested as tablets.

How do people behave when they take steroids?

How a person feels and behaves after using steroids can vary, depending on the person.

Steroids that are legally prescribed for short periods in low doses do not tend to cause serious side effects.

However, some people have been known to experience mood changes or trouble sleeping when taking steroid tablets.

People who misuse anabolic steroids illegally have been known to experience emotional and psychological effects including increased aggression, erratic behaviour, hallucinations, paranoia, and mood swings.

What are the side effects of steroids?

The physical side effects experienced when taking steroids can depend on several factors including how the drugs are ingested, frequency of use, and the metabolism and weight of the person.

The NHS provides comprehensive information regarding the side effects of legally-prescribed catabolic steroids in tablet, inhaler, nasal spray, injectable and cream forms.

Anabolic steroids, which are commonly misused to enhance performance and build muscle mass, can cause a range of unpleasant side effects when taken illegally without medical supervision.

Common side effects of anabolic steroid misuse in men can include:

  • Hair loss
  • Breast development
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Infertility
  • Reduced sperm count
  • Shrunken testicles

Common side effects of anabolic steroid misuse in women can include:

  • Hair loss
  • Irregular periods
  • Growth of facial hair
  • Swelling of the clitoris
  • A deepened voice
  • Breast reduction

Both men and women who misuse anabolic steroids over a prolonged period are at an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, liver or kidney problems, high blood pressure (hypertension), blood clots, high cholesterol, and fluid retention.

Additionally, people who inject anabolic steroids – especially those who share needles – are at risk of contracting life-altering infections including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

What happens when you use steroids with other drugs?

Below is an overview of the side effects of using anabolic steroids alongside other drugs.

Alcohol

When using prescribed steroids under the supervision of a doctor, it is generally safe to consume alcohol in moderation.

However, people who misuse steroids – in particular anabolic steroids – and drink alcohol may be at increased risk of developing physical and mental health problems.

Because both steroids and alcohol can affect the liver, someone who drinks alcohol excessively while using anabolic steroids may be putting themselves at increased risk of liver toxicity.

Other side effects of drinking alcohol while on steroids can include high blood pressure (hypertension), dehydration, and psychosis.

Cocaine

Using cocaine with anabolic steroids has been known to enhance the effects – and side effects – of either drug.

It can also increase the likelihood of serious physical and psychological complications, including damage to the vital organs (e.g. heart, liver, kidneys), and mental health issues including depression, anxiety and mood swings.

What legislation covers anabolic steroids?

Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, Schedule 4 part 2.

Under UK law, anabolic steroids are classified as Class C drugs, and can only be legally supplied via prescription.

Controlled drugs refer to any substances that are tightly controlled by the government, because they pose a risk of addiction or misuse.

It is an offence for a person to have controlled drugs in their possession, unless in exceptional circumstances, such as when they have been prescribed by a doctor. This also covers activities relating to the production, supply or preparation of controlled drugs.

SENTENCING FOR OFFENCES
Possession Up to 2 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both
Supply Up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both

Drug Driving Road Traffic Act 2015

SENTENCING FOR OFFENCES
Drug driving Up to 6 months in prison, an unlimited fine or both
Criminal record
Driving licence endorsement for 11 years
One-year driving ban
Causing death by dangerous driving Up to 14 years in prison

Are steroids used in medicine?

Steroids are prescribed in the UK to treat a wide range of conditions including asthma, hay fever, eczema, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Anabolic steroids can be legally prescribed to treat hormone deficiencies, such as delayed puberty, and loss of muscle mass in patients with life-threatening illnesses including cancer and AIDS.  

How long does it take for steroids to show up in a drug test?

Even after the effects of a drug have worn off, and long after the drug was first consumed, it can be detected by a drug test, depending on the type of test you take.

The drug testing detection windows for steroids are as follows:

  • Oral fluid (saliva) – up to 48 hours
  • Urine – days to weeks
  • Hair – varies depending on the length of hair available for testing
  • Nails – up to 12 months (up to 6 months for fingernails and up to 12-18 months for toenails)

Oral fluid and urine drug testing are known as ‘narrow-window’ forms of testing and can be used to detect drug use from 30 minutes after consumption, up to a few weeks.

This can vary depending on the type of substance and how much was used.

The rate at which hair and nails grow means that both hair drug testing and nail drug testing can provide a ‘wider-window’ of detection for drugs and their metabolites (up to 12 -18 months for nails and for a much longer time frame in hair – dependent on the length).

Marie Law

Marie Law

Head of Toxicology at AlphaBiolabs

A highly-skilled and respected scientist with over 13 years’ experience in the field of forensics, Marie joined AlphaBiolabs in 2022 and oversees the company’s growing toxicology team.

As Head of Toxicology, Marie’s day-to-day responsibilities include maintaining the highest quality testing standards for toxicology and further enhancing AlphaBiolabs’ drug and alcohol testing services for members of the public, the legal sector, and the workplace sector.