Corticosteroids (cortisone and its derivatives) are powerful hormones that control many functions in the body. Synthetic cortisone drugs are used for immune suppression and anti-inflammatory purposes. Conditions in which a corticosteroid might be prescribed include allergic reactions, autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and adrenal gland diseases. They have many beneficial purposes as well as numerous side effects. Corticosteroids must be used judiciously in order to avoid complications that may arise when they are contraindicated or inappropriately dosed.

Without steroids, we could not treat serious conditions such as anaphylaxis, a life threatening allergic reaction to an allergen or toxin. Nor would we be able to control autoimmune disorders wherein the body’s immune system inappropriately attacks normal cells, organs, and tissues. IMHA (immune mediated hemolytic anemia) is a serious example of an autoimmune disorder. Without steroids, animals with this condition could not survive.

Typical side effects of steroid use include increased thirst and urination, panting, increased susceptibility to infections, and rarely, excitability or nervousness. Mild symptoms are normal and expected. If the side effects seem dramatic, consult your veterinarian.

Steroids can cause stomach irritation, and other drugs that have this potential should be avoided. NSAIDS are never prescribed along with steroids for this reason. Vomiting or black tarry stools are a sign that significant irritation is occurring in the upper GI tract as a result of steroid administration.

In treating certain diseases with a steroid, it would be harmful to abruptly stop the administration of the medication. In these cases, a maintenance dose of the drug may be prescribed, or the dosage may be tapered slowly over a period of time. Read and follow label directions carefully to avoid recurrence of disease or adverse reactions.

The overuse of steroids can cause symptoms of hyperadrenocorticism (excess production of cortisone). Signs of this include increased susceptibility to infections, muscle wasting, and insatiable thirst and hunger. The medication can suppress the normal production of cortisol (natural form of cortisone) in the body because of the feedback mechanism from high levels of the hormone in the bloodstream. When this occurs, suddenly stopping the steroid can lead to rapid declines in cortisol levels, and an Addisonian crisis can occur. This is the opposite of too much hormone and is often fatal.

Because of the potentially serious side effects from inappropriate steroid use, many people fear these medications. Corticosteroids have a very important role in treating serious diseases, and when dosed properly, they can be invaluable.

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