Nearly 1.5 million Americans between 18 and 64 enrolled in a nationwide healthcare insurance program from 2012 to 2014, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. Of that number, over a fifth of them took steroids pills for a month or less for various ailments.
While long-term use of corticosteroids, like prednisone and cortisone, have been known for a while, a new study published in The BMJ, led by Dr. Akbar K. Waljee from the University of Michigan, shows that taking steroids even in short-term can increase the risk of sepsis, blood clots, and fractured bones—conditions that only worsen with higher doses.
Corticosteroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that have been used to treat multiple diseases for nearly a decade, dating back to their introduction for rheumatoid arthritis in 1949, the study says. Many patients use corticosteroids for its potent symptomatic relief, which makes long-term use gravely sought after, but generally avoided given the risks of infection, especially among HIV-positive people.
Researchers reviewed steroid users within 30 days to five months before taking oral steroids, then again during the month after their prescriptions were filled.
It was discovered that even at the low doses of 20 milligrams a day (or less), the participants had four times the risk of sepsis (a blood infection), over tripled the risk of blood clots, and nearly twice the risk of a fractured bone.
“While steroids may be appropriate in some situations, like many drugs they have side effects,” Waljee said. “We may use them more than we really need to. It is important to minimize their use if alternatives exist.”