Steroid tablets

Also called corticosteroid tablets or oral steroids

Easy-to-read medicine information about steroid tablets – what they are, how to take them safely and possible side effects.

Steroids are hormones that your body produces naturally. Artificial steroids act like natural steroids and some of them are used to reduce inflammation.

There are several different forms of steroid medicines. This page is about tablets, taken by mouth. Other types of steroids include creams, inhalers, nasal sprays and injections into joints

Examples of steroid tablets available in New Zealand

Prednisone is the most commonly prescribed steroid tablet. Other examples of steroid tablets include dexamethasone, hydrocortisone and methylprednisolone.

What are steroid tablets used for?

Steroid tablets are very effective to reduce  inflammation. They suppress your body’s immune system, and can also block a chemical called histamine (which is released during an allergic reaction). 

Steroid tablets are used to treat a number of conditions associated with inflammation. They don’t cure the condition but do suppress the symptoms. 

Examples of conditions associated with inflammation
  • inflammatory bowel diseases (eg, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis)
  • autoimmune diseases (eg, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), autoimmune hepatitis)
  • joint and muscle diseases (eg, rheumatoid arthritis, polymyalgia rheumatica, gout)
  • allergies
  • asthma
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Steroid tablets are also used as part of some cancer treatment. Steroids can be prescribed as replacement treatment for people whose own natural steroids are lacking (eg, in Addison's disease, congenital adrenal hyperplasia and hypopituitarism).

How do I take steroid tablets?

Take your medicine as prescribed by your doctor. They'll explain how much to take and how often. Steroid tablets are usually taken once a day, preferably in the morning, with or after food. They are sometimes prescribed to be taken every other day or for just a short course of a few days or a week.

Dose

Your doctor will advise you on the correct dose, which depends on your condition and your weight. Your dose is likely to be reduced as your symptoms improve.

If you’ve been taking steroids for a long time, your doctor will make any reductions very slowly. They may decide that you should continue on a small dose (a maintenance dose) for a long time.

Stopping steroids

You shouldn’t stop taking your steroid tablets or change the dose unless advised by your doctor. If you’ve been taking steroid tablets for more than 2 weeks, it’s dangerous to stop them suddenly. You usually need to reduce your dose slowly.

Stopping suddenly can cause your adrenal gland, which makes important hormones for your body, to stop working. This is known as adrenal insufficiency.

How long do steroid tablets take to work?

Depending on the dose you take and the reason you’re taking them, steroid tablets can work very quickly. You may notice an improvement within a few days.

Special instructions

  • Tell your healthcare providers: It is important to tell any health professional taking care of you that you are taking steroid tablets. Also let your prescribing doctor know if you have glaucoma, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, epilepsy or stomach ulcers.
  • Increased risk of infections: Taking steroid tablets for a long time can increase your risk of all types of infections. Tell your doctor if you come into contact with someone who has a contagious illness such as chickenpox or measles, or if you feel unwell.  
  • Vaccines: It is safe to have most vaccines, including the flu vaccine, while you are taking steroid tablets. Protecting yourself against infection is important because steroid tablets suppress your immune system. However, vaccination with 'live vaccines' should be postponed. Ask your doctor for advice before you have any vaccines while you are taking steroid tablets.  

Side effects

Like all medicines steroid tablets can cause side effects, although not everyone gets them. Most side effects are related to the dose you are taking and how long you are taking steroid tablets for. 

Side effects What should I do?
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • It is best to take your steroid dose in the morning or at least 3 hours before bedtime.
  • Headache
  • Muscle weakness, feeling tired
  • These are quite common when you first start taking steroid tablets and usually go away with time.
  • Tell your doctor if troublesome.
  • Increased appetite 
  • Steroid tablets increase your appetite.
  • Follow a healthy, balanced diet to maintain your weight.
  • Develop an eating schedule and stick to it. 
  • Fluid retention causing swollen ankles and feet
  • Whenever possible, sit with your feet raised.
  • Avoid foods with high salt content.
  • Tell your doctor if this happens.
  • Raised blood glucose
  • Steroid tablets can cause an increase in blood glucose.
  • If you have diabetes, you may need to increase the dose of your diabetic medication to control your blood glucose. Talk to your doctor about this.
  • Steroid tablets can also cause the onset of diabetes in people who are at risk of diabetes. Your doctor will monitor your blood glucose levels regularly.  
  • Changes in mood or behaviour
  • Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, bad dreams, anxiety or depression


  • Tell your doctor immediately or phone Healthline 0800 611 116.
  • Eye pain and changes to your vision
  • Tell your doctor immediately or phone Healthline 0800 611 116.
  • Problems with your stomach such as stomach pain, blood in your stool, or dark coloured stool
  • Tell your doctor immediately or phone Healthline 0800 611 116.

References

  1. Corticosteroids New Zealand Formulary
  2. Prednisone treatment – follow dosing recommendations Medsafe, June, 2021 
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 16 Sep 2020