Steroids (adults)

Steroids are hormones that are produced naturally in our bodies in small amounts. They help to control various functions, such as inflammation (swelling) when our body is injured.

Sometimes our bodies don't produce enough steroids to reduce the swelling. Fortunately, steroids can also be created in a laboratory for medical purposes, and given to reduce the swelling in these cases.

The steroids used during brain tumour treatment are NOT anabolic steroids, which are used by some athletes to build muscle.

Download our fact sheet about steroids for adults with a brain tumour.

Steroids and brain tumours

Swelling around a brain tumour can be caused by surgery or radiotherapy that may be part of your treatment. This can put pressure on surrounding tissues and cause symptoms such as headaches, sickness and seizures (fits). You may be given steroids to reduce the swelling, and so relieve those symptoms.

You may be given a low dosage of steroids if you are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy and experiencing nausea. They are also used to protect the brain at the time of surgery.

Steroids, therefore, help with symptom management rather than treating the tumour itself.

The steroid most commonly used with brain tumours is dexamethasone, as this is useful in treating swelling in the brain. As steroids are fast-acting drugs, the effects caused by the tumour could reduce quite quickly.

Read more about surgery, radiotherapy and other brain tumour treatments.

After taking steroids for a few days, your body will start to produce less of its own natural steroids. To allow for this, when taking you off steroids, your specialist is likely to reduce your dosage gradually to allow your body to start producing steroids naturally again. Stopping steroids suddenly can make you unwell, so please follow the advice of your specialist.

How are steroids taken?

Steroids can be taken:

  • Orally - as tablets or, sometimes, as liquid medicine
    (colour and dosage will depend on which steroid you have been prescribed
  • By injection into a vein or muscle
    (they are only likely to be given by injection when you are in hospital or when you are unable to take tablets by mouth)

How long will I need to take steroids for?

Steroids are usually given in short courses of a few days or a few weeks.

If you have to take them for longer than a week, you are likely to be given a steroid card. It has important information about the type of steroid and the dosage that may be needed in an emergency or if you need to have medical treatment.

Keep taking your steroids for as long as your specialist tells you to.

If you are given a steroid card, carry it with you at all times - your doctor may advise you to carry it for up to a year after completion of your steroid treatment.

What if I forget to take my steroids?

You should, of course, make every effort to remember to take your steroids when you are required to. It might help to leave yourself a note or set an alarm to remind you. Getting into a routine of when you take your steroids is also helpful.

If you do miss a dose though, don't try to compensate by taking a double dose next time. Speak to your health team to see what they advise.

What are the side-effects of steroids?

As with most medications, steroids affect people in different ways and effects vary according to the exact type and dosage prescribed. You should talk to your health team about any side effects you experience.

Some common side-effects include:

  • feeling hungrier than usual, which, if not managed, can lead to weight gain
  • redistribution of fat around the face, making it more rounded
  • indigestion or heartburn
  • greater chance of infection, particularly by viral infections, such as chicken-pox, shingles and measles (Speak to your health team if you are exposed to these infections or you notice any signs of infection, such as a temperature, or redness or soreness around a wound)
  • swelling in your hands and feet
  • feeling thirsty or needing to wee more often, especially at night
    (Speak to your doctor promptly, as your blood sugar levels may have temporarily heightened)
  • Raised blood pressure (hypertension)
  • difficulty sleeping
  • menstrual changes
  • emotional effects, such as anxiety, irritability, mood swings, hyper-activity
    (If you are worried about any of these, speak to your health team.)

With longer term use of steroids (more than a few months), other side-effects include:

  • skin thinning
  • muscle wasting
  • bone thinning
  • others – including acne, loss of sex drive, tiredness, eye effects such as glaucoma or cataracts

Please remember that you should never just stop taking steroids (nor reduce the amount you are taking) without your specialist advising you to do so.

Help and support

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a brain tumour, we offer a range of support, including a phone line, private Facebook groups and information events. Find out more.

We've also got information about other brain tumour side-effects and advice on living with a brain tumour.

Download our fact sheet about steroids for adults

Page last reviewed: 05/2018

Next review due: 05/2021

logo for the information standard certification logo for the helplines partnership

If you have further questions, need to clarify any of the information on this page, or want to find out more about research and clinical trials, please contact our team:

Information and Support line

0808 800 0004 (free from landlines and mobiles)

Phone lines open Mon-Fri, 09:00-17:00

You can also join our active online community on Facebook - find out more about our groups.

We promise to keep your data safe and you can unsubscribe at any time in the future. More information is in our Privacy Policy.