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What are the different types of steroids?

Marie Law AlphaBiolabs

By Marie Law, Head of Toxicology at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 28/03/2024

In this article, we take a closer look at the different types of steroids and their uses.

What are steroids?

Steroids is a term used for drugs that mimic the effects of some of the natural hormones that regulate and control how the body functions and develops. 

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

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

What are steroids used for?

Steroids are prescribed 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 (e.g. where puberty is delayed) and loss of muscle mass in patients with life-threatening illnesses including cancer and AIDS. 

How are steroids taken?

Steroids are taken 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.

What are the different types of steroids?

Corticosteroids 

Catabolic corticosteroids are synthetic, anti-inflammatory medications designed to mimic the effects of 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, betamethasone and dexamethasone.

Anabolic and Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids (AAS)

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

The terms ‘anabolic steroids’ and ‘anabolic-androgenic steroids’ are often used interchangeably to refer to the same drugs. However, they emphasise different aspects of the drugs’ effects. 

Both terms describe synthetic substances that have been manufactured 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. 

Put simply:

  • Anabolic refers to the muscle-building effects of the drug (anabolic steroids). 
  • Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids (AAS) is a term that captures the anabolic (muscle building) effects of the drug and the androgenic effects (relating to male characteristics).

The inclusion of ‘androgenic’ highlights the potential for these drugs to cause changes related to male sexual characteristics, such as facial hair and a deeper voice.

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. 

Progestogens

Progestogens is a term that refers to both natural and synthetic forms of progesterone. 

Synthetic progestogens – known as progestins – are designed to mimic the effects of progesterone, one of the two female sex hormones: the other being oestrogen. 

Progesterone plays a crucial role in regulating menstruation and is also vital in pregnancy. 

Synthetic progestogens have several applications in medicine including, but not limited to:

  • Contraception – as a key component in many types of hormonal contraception including the combined pill, progestin-only pills, and intrauterine devices (IUDs). 
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) – when used alongside oestrogen as part of hormone replacement therapy for postmenopausal women. 
  • Menstrual disorders – such as heavy menstrual bleeding, irregular periods, and to alleviate the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
  • For the treatment of endometriosis – endometriosis is a painful and sometimes debilitating condition whereby tissue similar to that of the lining of the womb grows in other places such as the ovaries or fallopian tubes. It can also cause infertility. Progestogens can be used in hormone therapy to help alleviate symptoms of the condition. 

Unlike other forms of steroids, progestogens are not typically associated with muscle building or athletic enhancement. However, they do play a crucial role in reproductive health.

Where can I get a drug test for steroid use?

Our state-of-the-art, accredited laboratory can test for a wide variety of drugs and their metabolites (breakdown products), including steroids. 

We offer drug testing services to suit a range of needs, including for: 

For more information or to request a quote, call our Customer Services team on 01 402 9466 or email info@alphabiolabs.ie.

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Marie Law AlphaBiolabs

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.

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