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Anabolic steroids

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Anabolic steroids are synthetic (human-made) medicines that copy the effects of testosterone.
  • They are used medically for hormone problems or muscle loss, but some people misuse them to build strength and muscle mass.
  • Short-term side effects include mood changes and long-term effects can include heart problems or cancer.
  • Anabolic steroids are safe when used as prescribed and directed by your doctor.
  • Anabolic steroids are illegal in Australia unless prescribed by your doctor.

What are anabolic steroids?

Anabolic steroids are synthetic (human-made) medicines that are similar to the male hormone testosterone. Their scientific name is anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS). They usually come in the form of an oral tablet, but may also be available as a gel or liquid.

Anabolic steroids are different from corticosteroids, which are medicines used to treat conditions such as arthritis or asthma. Both are sometimes simply called 'steroids', which can be confusing.

While anabolic steroids can be prescribed for medical purposes, some people may use them illegally and 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 hormone problems, such as:

Anabolic steroids can also be prescribed to replace muscle lost because of conditions such as cancer or AIDS, or to treat some 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 ability
  • decrease recovery time following an injury

Young people who are worried about their body image may choose to take anabolic steroids to reduce body fat.

What are the side effects of anabolic steroids?

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

Females 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 anabolic steroids are used during or before pregnancy

Males may also experience:

The long-term side effects of anabolic steroids include:

People who misuse anabolic steroids for performance or weight loss purposes may also cause accidental nerve damage while injecting their muscles.

Using anabolic steroids can lead to addiction, because people rely on the drugs for confidence and self-esteem.

It is only legal to use anabolic steroids in Australia if they have been prescribed by a doctor for a medical purpose. It is against the law to keep, make, use, sell or give away or inject someone else with anabolic steroids.

The penalties for supplying anabolic steroids vary in each state and territory. In some states, they are classified in the same drug category as heroin or ice (crystal meth), and suppliers or people caught possessing anabolic steroids can be arrested, fined and/or imprisoned.

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

Can anabolic steroids be used safely?

Anabolic steroids used correctly and under the guidance of your doctor can be safe for use. They can be unsafe if you misuse them.

If you choose to use anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes, here are some tips that can help reduce the risk of side effects:

  • Use as low a dose as possible, or limit use to a few weeks at a time, to give your body a rest.
  • Avoid injecting anabolic steroids directly into the same area of your body several times.
  • Do not inject them into the biceps, calf or pectoral muscles ('pecs'), reduce your chance of 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

You should ask for advice from your doctor if you are using or thinking about using anabolic steroids. They will be able to advise you of the risks and discuss how you can meet your performance and image goals in a safer way.

You can find a list of support services in your local area through the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

You can also find more information here:

  • Drug Help — information on how to get help with anabolic steroid use.
  • Drug aware — information to help you make informed decisions on using drugs.
  • Positive Choices — drug services and resources for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and communities.
  • Your room — Watch the video "Where can I get help when alcohol or drugs are a problem?" in many different community languages.

For telephone counselling and advice call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.

If you are injecting anabolic steroids, needle and syringe programs are available in each state:

If you are struggling with your body image, some great resources and support for supporting positive body image and heathy lifestyle behaviours are:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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