What do they do?

Corticosteroids, sometimes called glucocor­ticoids, are medications that mimic the effects of the hormone cortisol, which is produced naturally by the adrenal glands. Cortisol affects many parts of the body, including the immune system. It helps lower levels of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins and downplays the interaction between certain white blood cells (T cells and B cells) involved in the immune response. Corticosteroids simulate this effect to control inflammation. Corticosteroids come in many forms, including pills, liquids, injections, nasal sprays, skin ointments and eye drops. Only oral corticosteroids (those taken by mouth) are included in this guide. 

Who are they for?

Doctors prescribe corticosteroids for people who need quick relief from severe inflammation. Corticosteroids may be included in your treatment plan if you have rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus or other arthritis-related conditions.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your doctor may give you corticosteroid pills to take while you wait for other DMARDs to work. Low-dose corticosteroids may also be prescribed long-term for some patients with RA. However, the use of corticosteroids in RA is debated, as some doctors believe the long-term benefits do not outweigh the risk of side effects. If used alone, the immediate relief corticosteroids provide might defer the start of treatment, which could make a difference in the course of the disease. 

What is important to know about the drug class?

Never stop or lower your dos­age of corticosteroids without talking to your doctor. Doing so can cause a dangerous drop in cortisol levels in your body. Your doctor will tell you how to slowly reduce the dosage, so that the glands that make cortisol will have time to start working normally again.

See all corticosteroid drugs.