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Steroids (dexamethasone, prednisolone, methylprednisolone)

Find out about having treatment with steroids.

Steroids are used in a number of ways in cancer treatment.

They can:

  • treat the cancer itself
  • reduce inflammation
  • reduce the immune response - for example after a bone marrow transplant
  • help reduce sickness when having chemotherapy
  • improve your appetite

You can have steroids as part of your cancer treatment:

  • when you are first diagnosed
  • before and after surgery
  • before and after radiotherapy
  • for an advanced cancer

What steroids are

Steroids are naturally made by our bodies in small amounts. They help to control many functions. But steroids can also be made artificially and used as drugs to treat different diseases, including cancer.

Steroids used to treat cancer are usually a type called corticosteroids. These are man made versions of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands just above the kidneys.

Corticosteroids include:

  • prednisolone
  • methylprednisolone
  • dexamethasone

What corticosteroids do

Corticosteroids help control many body functions including:

  • how your body uses food to produce energy (metabolism)
  • keeping the balance of salt and water in your body
  • regulating blood pressure
  • reducing allergies and inflammation
  • controlling mood and behaviour

How you have steroids

You have steroids as tablets or liquid (if this is easier) to swallow. You take them after a meal or with milk as they can irritate your stomach. 

You can also have steroids as an injection into a muscle (intra muscular) or as an injection into a vein (intra venous).

You must take the steroids according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you. You should take the right dose, not more or less. Never stop taking them without talking to your specialist first.

When you have steroids

The dose and length of steroid treatment is different depending on why you're having steroids. 

You might need to take them:

  • every other day
  • once a day
  • several times a day

You should have a blue steroid card to carry with you all the time if you take steroids for more than 3 weeks. Your doctor or pharmacist might also suggest you wear a medical alert bracelet.

This is so the doctor knows that you are taking steroids, in case you need treatment in an emergency. Also let your dentist know you're taking steroids if you need to have any dental work.

Stopping steroid treatment

Take your steroids exactly as your doctor has told you.

When you take steroid tablets, the higher amounts in your bloodstream stop your body from making its own supply.

Never just stop taking your tablets. You must cut them down gradually with help and guidance from your doctor.

Tests during treatment

You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check your levels of blood cells and other substances in the blood. They also check how well your liver and kidneys are working.

Side effects

Important information

Chicken pox and shingles

Keep away from people who have chicken pox or shingles if you have never had these illnesses. They could make you very ill.

If you do come into contact with someone who has them, tell your doctor or nurse straight away.

Other medicines, food and drink

Cancer drugs can interact with some other medicines and herbal products. Tell your doctor or pharmacist about any medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, herbal supplements and over the counter remedies.

Pregnancy and contraception

This treatment might harm a baby developing in the womb. It is important not to become pregnant or father a child while you're having treatment and for a few months afterwards. Talk to your doctor or nurse about effective contraception before starting treatment.

Breastfeeding

Don’t breastfeed during this treatment because the drug may come through into your breast milk.

Treatment for other conditions

Always tell other doctors, nurses, pharmacists or dentists that you’re having this treatment if you need treatment for anything else, including teeth problems.

Immunisations

Don’t have immunisations with live vaccines while you’re having treatment and for at least 6 months afterwards.

In the UK, live vaccines include rubella, mumps, measles, BCG, yellow fever and shingles vaccine (Zostavax).

You can:

  • have other vaccines, but they might not give you as much protection as usual
  • have the flu vaccine (as an injection)
  • be in contact with other people who've had live vaccines as injections

Avoid close contact with people who’ve recently had live vaccines taken by mouth (oral vaccines) such as oral polio or the typhoid vaccine.

This also includes the rotavirus vaccine given to babies. The virus is in the baby’s poo for up to 2 weeks and could make you ill. So, avoid changing their nappies for 2 weeks after their vaccination if possible. Or wear disposable gloves and wash your hands well afterwards.

You should also avoid close contact with children who have had the flu vaccine nasal spray if your immune system is severely weakened. 

More information about this treatment

For further information about this treatment go to the electronic Medicines Compendium (eMC) website.

You can report any side effect you have to the Medicines Health and Regulatory Authority (MHRA) as part of their Yellow Card Scheme.

iWantGreatCare lets patients leave feedback on their experience of taking a particular drug. The feedback is from individual patients. It is not information, or specialist medical advice, from Cancer Research UK.

Information and help

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