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The Informed Parent

More Than Development: Anabolic Steroid Abuse

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jul. 19, 2004

Performance enhancing drugs have been part of our culture for the last century. Public attention has been drawn to this issue with increasing interest in the last several years as Olympic athletes have been relieved of their medals based on the discovery of banned substances in their screening tests. The Olympic Committee began screening for steroid abuse in the 1976 Olympic Games. In 2000 the Committee prohibited a record number of athletes from competing in the Games because of their use of prohibited substances. As with many elements of popular culture, while these elite athletes highlight this issue, they are only a small subset of a much larger problem.

Teenagers are particularly at risk for steroid abuse. In this vulnerable time of childhood, teens may perceive the benefits of anabolic steroids to be just the answer to any number of issues they face. While teen athletes have been the focus of the majority of investigation into anabolic steroid use, there are many non-athletes that also use these drugs to enhance their appearance and consequently their popularity. Most parents are aware of several drugs of abuse that are present in our culture today. But few are likely to consider anabolic steroids among this list. Heightened awareness and insightful questions will help elucidate if your teen may be abusing or at risk for abusing anabolic steroids.

Anabolic steroids were first discovered in the 1930’s as a testosterone derivative. This male hormone is known to increase lean muscle mass. Since that time multiple varieties have been developed, available both as an oral and injectable drug. Oral agents are excreted in the urine within weeks of ingestion while injectable forms may remain in the body for several weeks. As a consequence, users will usually use these drugs in cycles of six-to eight-weeks on, followed by six-to eight-weeks without any use. Shorthand descriptions of these drugs include: “gas, juice, or roids.”

There are multiple side effects of anabolic steroids. The increase in lean muscle mass and change in physique are the benefits teens are looking to gain, and are temporary. However, they may not be aware of the other ill effects, such as the development of excess hair, male breast formation, and severe acne. Major organ systems are also adversely affected. Anabolic steroids may cause liver dysfunction, hypertension, and cardiomyopathy. Any of these side effects may potentially be fatal.

This habit is expensive, averaging approximately five hundred dollars a month to maintain. Parents should be alert to any acute changes in their child’s skin; in particular, if coupled with any change in body type, especially if it seems out of proportion to the child’s previous growth. Another sign would be any of the above-mentioned changes that do not respond to a physician’s intervention. In general, most of the side effects of anabolic steroids are reversible, although it may take up to a year for this to occur. Consult your physician if you have any concerns, and talk to your children about the serious consequences of anabolic steroid use.

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