Anabolic steroids have legitimate medical purposes. Healthcare providers prescribe them for certain conditions, such as male hypogonadism and certain types of breast cancer. But anabolic steroid misuse is common. People often misuse these drugs to build lean muscle mass. Misusing anabolic steroids can be harmful to your health.
Anabolic steroids are medications that are manufactured forms of testosterone. The technical term for these compounds is “anabolic-androgenic steroids” (AAS). “Anabolic” refers to tissue building (mainly muscle), and “androgenic” refers to a group of sex hormones called androgens.
Testosterone is the main androgen. It stimulates the development of male characteristics. Levels of testosterone are naturally much higher in men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) than in women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB).
Healthcare providers mainly prescribe anabolic steroids to treat low testosterone (male hypogonadism). But they use it for other conditions as well, such as to stimulate muscle growth for people with certain cancers or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Some athletes, bodybuilders and others misuse these drugs in an attempt to enhance performance and/or improve their physical appearance. Anabolic steroids are the most common appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs (APEDs). Anabolic steroid misuse is common. Approximately 3 to 4 million people in the United States use anabolic steroids for nonmedical purposes.
Anabolic steroids come in several different forms, including:
There are several prescription anabolic steroids, including:
General steroids, called corticosteroids, are medications that reduce inflammation and the activity of your immune system. They’re manufactured drugs that closely resemble cortisol, a hormone that your adrenal glands produce naturally.
Anabolic steroids are manufactured drugs that closely resemble the hormone testosterone or other androgens.
Healthcare providers provide corticosteroids much more often than anabolic steroids.
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved certain anabolic steroids for the treatment of the following conditions:
Healthcare providers sometimes prescribe anabolic steroids for other conditions. This is considered an off-label, or non-FDA-approved, use of the medication. It’s legal and generally safe. Off-label uses include:
Anabolic steroids (artificial androgens) work by activating androgen receptors in your body and mimicking the effects of natural androgens.
Prescription anabolic steroids work in different ways to treat conditions. For example:
The main reason people misuse anabolic steroids is to increase lean muscle mass when using them in conjunction with weight training.
Non-athlete weightlifters (bodybuilders) typically misuse them to improve their appearance. Anabolic steroid misuse is often associated with a form of body dysmorphic disorder called muscle dysmorphia.
For athletes, increasing muscle mass may also promote strength, which can improve strength-based sports performance.
Each type of prescription anabolic steroid and each brand has different possible side effects. It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider or a pharmacist about possible side effects of the specific medication you’re taking or thinking of taking.
In general, common side effects of prescription anabolic steroids include:
Misuse of anabolic steroids can cause a variety of side effects ranging from mild to harmful or even life-threatening. Most side effects are reversible if you stop taking the drugs, but others may be permanent.
Nonprescription doses are often 10 to 100 times higher than the doses healthcare providers prescribe to treat medical conditions. This is why the side effects are usually more severe than the side effects of prescribed anabolic steroid use.
Side effects and complications of anabolic steroid misuse for anyone include:
Side effects and complications of anabolic steroid misuse in men and people AMAB include:
Side effects and complications of anabolic steroid misuse in women and people AFAB include:
Yes, if you take prescription anabolic steroids under the supervision of your healthcare provider for a medical reason, anabolic steroids are generally safe.
Misuse of anabolic steroids can be harmful to your health.
You should have regular appointments with your healthcare provider when taking an anabolic steroid to assess how well it’s working.
Otherwise, talk to your healthcare provider in the following situations:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Anabolic steroids are powerful medications that affect your hormone levels and body composition. Due to their possible health risks, it’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for taking the medication. Don’t take more than your daily recommended dose or share or sell them. Talk with your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you feel like you’re dependent on anabolic steroids.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/07/2023.
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