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Anabolic steroids

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Anabolic steroids are man-made drugs similar to the hormone testosterone.
  • Anabolic steroids are only legal in Australia when prescribed by a doctor.
  • Misusing anabolic steroids can lead to long-term damage to your body.

On this page

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.

In Australia, anabolic steroids are classed as performance and image-enhancing drugs (PIEDs). These are drugs that are taken to improve a person’s performance in sport, appearance or body image. Users are more likely to be well educated and more health conscious than other users of illegal drugs.

Anabolic steroids are different from corticosteroids, medicines used to treat conditions such as arthritis or asthma. Both are sometimes referred to simply as ‘steroids’. Anabolic steroids are sometimes called ‘roids’, ‘gear’ or ‘juice’.

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What are anabolic steroids used for?

Anabolic steroids can be prescribed by a doctor to treat hormonal problems. The doctor may prescribe them:

  • to treat delayed puberty in males
  • to replace muscle lost to conditions such as cancer or AIDS
  • to treat specific types of breast cancer and aplastic anaemias

Anabolic steroids are taken illegally by some competitive athletes, body builders and people who need strong muscles for their work to build lean muscle, increase strength and endurance, and reduce recovery time following an injury. They are often taken in doses that are higher than the doses prescribed medically.

Young men and women who are worried about their body image may take anabolic steroids because the drugs can help to reduce body fat.

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What are the side effects of anabolic steroids?

The short-term side effects of anabolic steroid misuse include:

  • water retention and bloating
  • sleeping problems
  • nerve damage from injecting
  • irritability, mood swings or aggression
  • changes in sex drive
  • baldness

In addition, young people who misuse anabolic steroids may experience:

  • acne with scarring
  • stretch marks on the chest and arms
  • injuries from excessively intense gym workouts
  • stunted growth
  • premature bone and skin ageing

Women may experience:

  • facial hair
  • decreased breast size
  • irregular periods
  • deeper voice

Men may also experience:

  • shrunken testicles and decreased sperm production
  • reduced sperm count and infertility
  • developing breasts
  • having an involuntary erection that won’t go away

The long-term side effects of misusing anabolic steroids include:

  • liver damage
  • high blood pressure
  • heart attack, stroke or death
  • kidney or prostate cancer
  • depression

There is no safe level of illegal drug use. However, if you have chosen to use anabolic steroids, to minimise the risk of side effects:

  • try to lower the dose, or use them for a few weeks at a time, to give your body a rest
  • never inject anabolic steroids directly into the same area of your body
  • to avoid damaging the nerves, do not inject anabolic steroids into the biceps, calf or pectoral muscles
  • always use clean needles to reduce the risk of HIV, hepatitis B and C, and other blood-borne viruses; never share needles with other people
  • do not combine anabolic steroids with diuretics such as caffeine and alcohol, or with other drugs such as amphetamines

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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, and suppliers can face imprisonment.

Anabolic steroids are banned in competitive sport. Using them can result in fines, suspensions or permanent bans.

Other questions you might have

How do steroids build muscle?

Anabolic steroids (which are man-made) imitate naturally occuring hormones, and have similar properties to testosterone. This allows them to activate proteins in the body known as testosterone receptors. The body then increases muscle tissue production because the receptors are being stimulated.

Do anabolic steroids increase the risk of cardiovascular disease?

Anabolic steroids are bad for your heart and can increase fat deposits in the blood vessels. This increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. Steroids are also known to cause damage to the liver and stunt bone growth in teenagers.

Can steroids be used safely?

There is no safe level of illegal drug use, but the risk of harm can be reduced by using lower doses, using clean unused needles, and never injecting directly into biceps, calf muscles or pectorals. This can cause nerve damage.

Resources and support

  • If you are worried about anabolic steroid use, talk to your doctor. Using anabolic steroids can lead to addiction since people rely on the drugs for confidence and self-esteem.
  • 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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Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2019

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