Anabolic steroids are prescription-only medicines that are sometimes taken without medical advice to increase muscle mass and improve athletic performance.
If used in this way, they can cause serious side effects and addiction.
Anabolic steroids are manufactured drugs that mimic the effects of the male hormone testosterone. They have limited medical uses and aren't to be confused with corticosteroids, a different type of steroid drug that's commonly prescribed for a variety of conditions.
This page explains the dangers of misusing anabolic steroids, and aims to advise and support those who are addicted to the drugs. It covers:
- anabolic steroids and the law
- why people misuse anabolic steroids
- how they are taken
- side effects
- getting help
Are anabolic steroids illegal?
Anabolic steroids are class C drugs, which can only be sold by pharmacists with a prescription.
It's not illegal to possess anabolic steroids for personal use. They can also be imported or exported, as long as this is carried out in person. This means they can't be posted or delivered by a courier or freight service.
However, it's illegal to possess, import or export anabolic steroids if it's believed you're supplying or selling them. This includes giving them to friends. The penalty is an unlimited fine, or even a prison sentence.
In professional sport, most organisations ban anabolic steroid use and test competitors for banned steroids.
Why people misuse anabolic steroids
Anabolic steroids are performance-enhancing drugs that increase muscle mass and decrease fat, as well as causing many undesirable effects. Some athletes, weightlifters and bodybuilders take them regularly to improve their physical performance and build up their bodies.
However, people of all ages have been known to misuse these drugs, including adolescent boys who suffer from body dysmorphia, an anxiety disorder where the way someone thinks about their body doesn't match the way it looks.
Teenage boys and young men may take the drugs because they have reverse anorexia. This is when they don't see themselves as being physically big enough or strong enough.
Some people believe taking anabolic steroids will help them become fit and healthy. This isn't true: taking anabolic steroids is a dangerous drug habit.
How anabolic steroids are taken
Anabolic steroids are usually injected into the muscle, but some are available in tablet form, or as creams or gels that are applied to the skin.
Most people who use anabolic steroids are aware of the dangers of taking them, and have ways of getting the desired effect without the undesirable side effects.
This involves injecting the drugs for a period of time and then stopping for a rest period before starting again. This is known as "cycling".
More than one type of anabolic steroid may be used at a time. Users believe this increases the effectiveness, and is known as "stacking".
The term "pyramiding" refers to a combination of both stacking and cycling. One or more anabolic steroid is taken in a low dose. This is gradually increased to a maximum dose over 6 to 12 weeks, before the dose is reduced to zero to give the body a break and the cycle is started again.
Users tend to exercise more when they're taking high doses to make the most of their improved performance during this time.
Athletes have been known to try to time their injections so the drug is out of their system by the time they're drug tested.
Side effects of anabolic steroids
Regularly taking anabolic steroids causes a range of male features, not just increased muscle mass. It can also lead to potentially dangerous medical conditions, such as high blood pressure (hypertension) or heart attacks.
Effects of anabolic steroids in men can include:
In women, anabolic steroids can cause:
- facial hair growth and body hair
- loss of breasts
- swelling of the clitoris
- a deepened voice
- an increased sex drive
- problems with periods
- hair loss
- severe acne
In addition, both men and women who take anabolic steroids can develop any of the following medical conditions:
Misusing anabolic steroids can also cause the following psychological or emotional effects:
- aggressive behaviour
- mood swings
- manic behaviour
- hallucinations and delusions
Stunted growth in adolescents
Anabolic steroids accelerate bone growth, so if they're misused by adolescents who haven't yet had the growth spurt associated with puberty, the drugs can cause premature ageing of the bones and restricted growth.
As anabolic steroids are often injected, there are risks associated with sharing needles. These are the same risks associated with recreational drug use, and include:
Like many other substances, anabolic steroids are addictive. This means you can crave the drug, require more to get the same effect, and have withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop taking them.
A person who is addicted to anabolic steroids will continue using them despite experiencing unpleasant physical side effects.
When doctors prescribe steroid medication, they always advise coming off the medication slowly by gradually reducing the dose. Coming off anabolic steroids suddenly can result in withdrawal symptoms that include:
You should see your GP if you think you're addicted to anabolic steroids. Treatment for an addiction to anabolic steroids will be similar to that of other types of addiction.
Your GP may refer you to a specially trained drugs counsellor. They'll discuss your addiction with you, how to safely stop taking steroids, and any obstacles you may face when trying to stop, plus strategies for dealing with those obstacles.
For more information and advice, see:
Page last reviewed: 09/11/2015
Next review due: 09/11/2017