3 things you should know about steroids

Are they safe for bronchitis, asthma, arthritis?

If you’ve ever had acute bronchitis, this story will sound familiar. Even if you’ve never had bronchitis, reading this may help you gain some helpful insights about the use of steroids in treating common medical issues.

Late on a recent Friday evening I felt a bit congested, and my throat had a familiar tickle.

“Oh dear,” I thought. “I sure hope this isn’t what I think it is.”

By 3 a.m. I was awake and coughing my head off. It felt like a giant hair ball was stuck in my lungs, but no amount of hacking would dislodge it.

The good news is I had no body aches or fever. The bad news is I knew I faced two to three weeks of constant coughing and sleepless nights. It was bronchitis.

Because I’ve had bronchitis so many times, I already knew:

  • It often flares up around the change of seasons due to allergies
  • I need to get lots of rest and fluids
  • It can’t be treated with antibiotics since it’s usually caused by a virus or allergies — so how do I get relief?

I had recently started seeing a new primary care physician so I pondered making an appointment the following week but wasn’t looking forward to a weekend of constant coughing. That’s when I recalled that a colleague mentioned going to a Norton Immediate Care Center near her home one weekend when her bronchitis flared up.

She was surprised to be prescribed steroids — a first for her that raised some concerns given the negative things you hear about them. But they worked well and her coughing improved dramatically by the next day.

According to James Jennings, M.D., Norton Community Medical Associates – Brownsboro, corticosteroids are designed to help reduce inflammation in the body.

“Corticosteroids are often prescribed to help treat inflammatory or immune system conditions such as arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, bronchitis, asthma, chronic lung problems and certain skin rashes,” Dr. Jennings said.

In broad terms, there are three things people should understand about steroids:

  • There is a marked difference between anabolic steroids and corticosteroids. Anabolic steroids include testosterone and synthetic (lab made) substances that mimic testosterone. These are the steroids that sometimes wind up with a “bad rep” for being misused by athletes. Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory medications prescribed by physicians as medical treatment for a variety of conditions.
  • Corticosteroids can have many side effects that can range from mild to serious. Common side effects may include weight gain or swelling, puffy face, headache, muscle weakness, poor diabetes control, glaucoma and cataracts.
  • Potential side effects from corticosteroids are typically more apparent when they are used at higher doses or for extended periods of time. These powerful medications should always be used as directed by a physician.

Fortunately, my recent bronchitis saga took a happy turn thanks in part to steroids. Inspired by my colleague’s experience, I called the Norton Immediate Care Center in my neighborhood. By 9:30 that Saturday morning I was being seen by a physician who assessed my breathing, temperature, history and other key medical indicators.

The diagnosis, as expected, was allergy-induced bronchitis. We talked about treatment options and outcomes. I left with prescriptions for a one-week supply of corticosteroids (prednisone), a two-week supply of allergy medicine and codeine cough syrup (a virtual lifesaver!).

I got the medications on the way home and began taking them that day. By Sunday afternoon I was doing measurably better. By Monday, I was at work with very little coughing.

The biggest takeaway from my experience is not to make assumptions about your medical care and what you think you know. It’s easy to get confused about medications that may have similar names. It’s also a mistake to think antibiotics need to be prescribed for every cough, or to believe there’s no point in seeking care if you already know antibiotics aren’t an option.

How can you know what care options are available unless you seek professional medical help? The simple answer is, “You can’t.”

If you need medical care, visit one of 13 convenient Norton Immediate Care Centers. Most are open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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