It's important to understand the facts about steroids, their side effects, and what can drive kids and teens to try them. Being aware of the kinds of pressures kids deal with in sports can help you make sure that your child isn't at risk.
What Are Steroids?
Drugs commonly referred to as "steroids" are classified as corticosteroids or anabolic (or anabolic-androgenic) steroids.
Corticosteroids, such as cortisone, are drugs that doctors prescribe to help control inflammation. They're used to help control conditions like asthma and lupus. They're not the same as the anabolic steroids.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic hormones that can boost the body's ability to produce muscle and prevent muscle breakdown.
Some athletes take steroids in the hopes that they will improve their ability to run faster, hit farther, lift heavier weights, jump higher, or have more endurance. In the United States, it is against the law to use anabolic steroids without a prescription.
Androstenedione, or "andro," is a kind of anabolic steroid taken by athletes who want to build muscle. It is now a controlled substance because of suspected health risks and available only by prescription. There is little or no evidence that it has any significant anabolic effects.
Why Do People Use Steroids?
Some professional baseball players, cyclists, and track stars have been accused of — and in some cases have admitted to — using steroids to give them an edge competitively.
Steroid use has trickled down to younger athletes too, who face pressure to be stronger and faster, and to make it to college and professional leagues.
Steroids promise bold results, but there is little proof that they deliver any such benefits. But they can harm developing kids — with some of these ill effects not likely to turn up until years later.
How Do Anabolic Steroids Work?
Anabolic steroids are drugs that resemble the chemical structure of the sex hormone testosterone, which is made naturally by the body. Testosterone directs the body to make or enhance male characteristics, such as increased muscle mass, facial hair growth, and deepening of the voice, and is an important part of male development during puberty.
When anabolic steroids increase the levels of testosterone in the blood, they stimulate muscle tissue in the body to grow larger and stronger. However, the effects of too much testosterone circulating in the body can be harmful over time.
What Are Dangers of Anabolic Steroids?
Steroids are dangerous for two reasons: they are illegal, and they can damage a person's health, especially if used in large doses over time. Also, the health problems caused by steroids may not appear until years after the steroids are taken.
Although they might help build muscle, steroids can have very serious side effects. Using steroids for a long time can harm the reproductive system. In males, steroids can lead to impotence, a reduction in the amount of sperm produced in the testicles, and even reduced testicle size.
Females who use steroids may have problems with their menstrual cycles because steroids can disrupt the maturation and release of eggs from the ovaries. This can cause long-term problems with fertility.
Steroids taken for a long period of time also can cause:
- stunted growth in teens (by causing bones to mature too fast and stop growing at an early age)
- liver tumors
- abnormal enlargement of the heart muscles
- violent, aggressive behavior and mood swings
- blood lipid abnormalities that contribute to heart disease
- acne (or a worsening of acne)
- increased breast growth in males, especially teens
- irreversible stretch marks
- a heightened tendency for hair loss and male-pattern baldness
- muscle aches
Teen girls and women risk these additional side effects:
- male-type facial and body hair growth and male-pattern baldness
- deepening of the voice
- enlargement of the clitoris
What Else Can Happen?
Besides the health risks, kids who use steroids without a prescription are breaking the law. Drug testing for all athletes has become common, and those who fail a drug test for steroids can face legal consequences, including jail time, monetary fines, being banned from an event or team, or forfeiture of trophies or medals.
Andro use has been banned by many sports organizations, including the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and most high school athletic associations.
Talking to Kids About Steroids
Many pressures might drive young athletes to try steroids. Although most athletes exercise hard, eat properly, and take care of their bodies to reach fitness and performance goals, the pressure to excel and the desire to look physically toned and fit can be intense.
Help your kids handle these pressures by:
- discussing healthy competition with them
- talking about the coaches' and team members' attitudes toward steroids
- knowing what kind of sports environments they compete in
- encouraging them to prepare mentally and physically for competition by eating well and getting enough rest
Watch for these warning signs of steroid abuse:
- exaggerated mood swings
- worsening acne
- unusually greasy skin with stretch marks
- a sudden increase in muscle size
If you see any of these signs in your child, talk with your doctor. Steroids may give young athletes the sense that they're stronger and more athletic, but the risks are too dangerous.
When steroid use among pro athletes is in the news, use it as a way to discuss the issue, making sure your child understands the health risks, the possibility of legal trouble, and the concept that steroid use is a form of cheating.