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Oral Steroids For Your Asthma

What You Need to Know About Systemic Corticosteroids


Updated May 08, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Inhaled steroids are not the only steroids for asthma: Oral steroids, also called systemic corticosteroids, are often used when you develop an asthma exacerbation or attack. This form of steroids for asthma is different from inhaled steroids because it affects the whole body. Inhaled steroids, on the other hand, are inhaled directly into the lungs, where they have an effect with little systemic (body-wide) effect. Systemic steroids can prevent the late phase of the pathophysiology of asthma.

Oral steroids should be used sparingly. Needing systemic corticosteroids more than 1 time per year is a sign that your asthma control is not what it should be. Oral steroids are used to help improve asthma symptoms when you do not quickly respond to treatment. Some doctors may also include oral steroids as part of your asthma action plan.

How Oral Steroids For Asthma Work

Systemic corticosteroids reduce inflammation throughout your entire body. In your lungs, oral steroids decrease swelling, inflammation, and mucus production. As a result, oral steroids will decrease asthma symptoms such as:

Systemic corticosteroid acts on a number of different types of cells involved in the pathophysiology of asthma, including:

Oral steroids, however, do not act as a bronchodilator.

Examples of Systemic Corticosteroids

Some of the available oral steroids include:

  • Prednisone
  • Prednisolone
  • Methylprednisolone

Oral steroids are available as both a pill and in a liquid formulation.

Side Effects of Systemic Steroids

Because systemic steroids affect the whole body, it is not surprising that there is an increased risk of side effects compared to inhaled steroids. Side effect risk is really related to how often you need these medications. If you need oral steroids more than once per year, your doctor will likely consider changing your treatment regimen.

Potential side effects over the short term include:

  • Mood changes
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain
  • Acne
  • Worsening control of sugars in diabetic patients

Additional side effects when oral steroids are used for longer periods include:

  • Bone thinning and osteoporosis
  • Decreased growth in kids
  • Cataracts
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased ability to fight infections
  • Cushing syndrome

Most of these side effects will only occur if you need to take systemic corticosteroids for a long period of time. If you need oral steroids more than once per year make sure you talk with your doctor about your asthma action plan.


American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Consumer Information Sheet. Accessed: March 20, 2011. Is Your Asthma Allergic?

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed: March 20, 2011.. Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma

Asthma. In Chest Medicine: Essentials Of Pulmonary And Critical Care Medicine. Editors: Ronald B. George, Richard W. Light, Richard A. Matthay, Michael A. Matthay. May 2005, 5th edition.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consumer Information. Accessed: March 20, 2011. Asthma: General Information

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