What are anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids are synthetic (man-made) drugs that are similar to the male hormone testosterone. Their proper name is anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS). They are swallowed as tablets, applied as a gel, or injected into a muscle.
Anabolic steroids are different from corticosteroids, which are medicines used to treat conditions such as arthritis or asthma. Both are sometimes referred to simply as ‘steroids’.
Anabolic steroids can be used for medical purposes, but people also sometimes take them to improve their performance in sport, their appearance or their body image.
When used for performance, anabolic steroids are classed as performance and image-enhancing drugs. Users sometimes call them ‘roids’, ‘gear’ or ‘juice’.
What are anabolic steroids used for?
A doctor can prescribe anabolic steroids to treat hormonal problems, such as:
- delayed puberty in males
- low levels of testosterone, particularly in men with testicular disease or pituitary failure
Anabolic steroids can also be prescribed to replace muscle lost because of conditions such as cancer or AIDS, or to treat types of breast cancer and anaemia.
Some competitive athletes, body builders and people who need strong muscles for their work take anabolic steroids to:
- build lean muscle
- increase strength and endurance
- reduce recovery time following an injury
Young men and women who are worried about their body image may take anabolic steroids because the drugs can help to reduce body fat.
What are the side effects of anabolic steroids?
The short-term side effects of anabolic steroid use include:
- water retention and bloating
- fatigue and sleeping problems
- irritability, mood swings or aggression
- changes in sex drive
- male pattern baldness (in both men and women)
Women may also experience:
- male pattern hair growth including facial hair
- decreased breast size
- irregular periods
- deeper voice
- enlarged clitoris
- effects on an unborn daughter if the steroids are used during or before pregnancy
Men may also experience:
- shrunken testicles and decreased sperm production
- reduced sperm count and infertility
- developing breasts (gynecomastia)
- an involuntary erection that won’t go away (priapism)
- prostate problems
The long-term side effects of anabolic steroids include:
- abnormal liver function
- high blood pressure and high cholesterol
- heart attack and stroke
- kidney or prostate cancer
- stunted growth
- premature bone and skin ageing
People who misuse anabolic steroids (for performance or weight-loss purposes) are more likely to experience these side effects because they are often taken in doses that are higher than medical doses. They might also experience nerve damage from injecting and injuries from excessively intense gym workouts.
Using anabolic steroids can lead to addiction because people rely on the drugs for confidence and self-esteem.
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Are anabolic steroids legal in Australia?
It is only legal to use anabolic steroids in Australia if they have been prescribed by a doctor for proper medical reasons. It is against the law to keep, make, use, sell or give away, or to inject someone else with anabolic steroids.
The penalties for supplying anabolic steroids are different in each state and territory. In some states, they are classified in the same drug category as heroin or ice (crystal meth), and suppliers can face imprisonment.
Anabolic steroids are banned in competitive sport. Using them can result in fines, suspensions or permanent bans.
Can steroids be used safely?
Anabolic steroids cannot be used safely except under a doctor’s supervision. However, if you have chosen to use anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes, you might be able to reduce the risk of side effects if you:
- lower the dose, or limit use to a few weeks at a time, to give your body a rest
- never inject anabolic steroids directly into the same area of your body
- do not inject them into the biceps, calf or pectoral muscles (to avoid nerve damage)
- always use clean needles to reduce the risk of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and other blood-borne viruses — never share needles with other people
- do not combine anabolic steroids with caffeine or alcohol (which remove water from the body), or with other drugs such as amphetamines
Resources and support
- If you are worried about anabolic steroid use, talk to your doctor.
- Visit the Drug Help website for information on how to get help with anabolic steroid use.
- You can also call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.
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Last reviewed: June 2021