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More young men using steroids but do they know the harms?

Steroids have a range of negative side-effects and harms that many may not know about. arbyreed/Flickr

A recent national survey has found two-thirds of young men who began injecting drugs within the past three years were using steroids, overtaking methamphetamine and heroin use.

Anabolic-androgenic steroids are synthetic forms of testosterone, the hormone that plays a key role in the development of male reproductive tissues as well as the development of secondary sexual characteristics, such as the growth of body hair and deepening of the voice.

Steroids have legitimate medical uses. They can be used as growth stimulators in children with growth failure and are given to people with chronic wasting conditions, such as AIDS, to help stimulate appetite and preserve muscle mass. But, when combined with exercise and a proper diet, steroids can help increase muscle size, strength, and help with the development of lean muscle mass.

Unknown extent

The Australia Crime Commission has reported that the number of steroid detections at the Australian border had increased by 74% in 2009-10, the highest recorded in the last decade. It also said the number of national steroid arrests had increased by 47%. A large number of detections involved small quantities, which suggest they are being imported for personal use.

It’s important to note that these numbers reflect what law enforcement detects and seizes. If we accept this as the tip of the iceberg, then it suggests that the use of steroids is increasing in our society. While steroid use has always been synonymous with bodybuilding, we have seen its use becoming increasingly acceptable among the average gym-going population. The figures in the just-released national survey attest to this.

But while we have a fair idea of who is using, there’s no actual profile of a typical steroid user in Australia. And the prevalence of steroid use varies depending on the group being surveyed.

Who uses steroids?

A large, general population survey of over 26,000 Australians found less than 0.1% had used steroids for non-medical purposes in the last year. To put this into perspective, around 10% of Australians had used cannabis in the same time period, 3% had used ecstasy and 2% had used cocaine. Since this survey was first conducted in 1993, this level of steroid use has barely changed.

Meanwhile, a survey of over 22,000 high school students in Australia found that around 2% of 12- to 17-year-olds had used steroids “without a doctor’s prescription” in an attempt to make them “better at sport, to increase muscle size or to improve your general appearance”. Slightly fewer students had used steroids in recent time periods, indicating that use was generally not regular. Those who had used steroids had also used a range of other substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, ecstasy, and cocaine.

Surveys of men who have sex with men have found that around 2% in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have used steroids in the past six months.

Some of 100 bottles containing illegal liquid steroids hidden inside sexual lubricant packaging seized by Australian Customs in Melbourne in 2008. AAP Image/Australian Customs

What all these figures tell us is that we aren’t looking in the right places. We are probably never going to get an exact number of the people using steroids. But who are they? From all the research that has been done in Australia, we know that the people who use steroids, and other drugs to enhance their image or their performance, are not the same.

They do tend to be male. They do tend to be aged in their mid-twenties to early-thirties, though there are men who are younger and older who also report using steroids. They tend to have completed high school and be employed full time. A sizeable number identify as bisexual or homosexual. They do tend to use other drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy, although that may be better explained by their sexual orientation rather than their steroid use.

While steroid users may be alike in some ways and different in some ways, what appears to be common is why they use them. Each person who takes steroids will have their own motivation for doing so, but we can broadly place these into one of three categories: to get a better body, to be better at sport, or to be better at their job. Some of these reasons may cross over. Having more strength may mean that you perform better on the footy field, and if you are a security guard or a bouncer, having a better body may be advantageous at work.

Side-effects of steroid use

Combined with exercise and a proper diet, steroids work. But they have a range of negative side effects and harms. Indeed, most of the people who have used steroids in Australia perceive and report harms; only a small minority report having no concern, and, in one study, 97% reported at least one physical side-effect.

Some of the harms associated with steroid use could be considered minor or inconvenient, such as acne or increased body hair. Other side-effects can include increased appetite, water retention, reduced teste size and sleeplessness. Many of these will subside once steroid use has stopped.

But, there are other side-effects that people often don’t consider. Steroids are injected, so there’s potential for harm from unsafe injecting practices, such as sharing or reusing needles or sharing multivial doses. Harms related to injecting may include persistent soreness or redness at the injection site, scarring or hard lumps, hitting a vein or persistent bleeding, swelling of the arm or leg, abscesses and nausea.

Steroid users do report concerns regarding their mental health. These include aggression or “roid rage”, and changes in mood and the impact of these on relationships with friends and family. Users have self-reported negative effects on mood, and these include mood swings or feeling more moody, and feeling anxious or depressed.

It’s also been suggested that steroid use can cause a dependence syndrome. This is probably the least explored aspect of steroid use. Interviews with steroids users have shown that some have continued to use despite experiencing negative physical or psychological effects, and some users indicate they are scared of stopping because they fear they will lose the physical benefits of using.

The latest research gives cause for concern and it’s really important that people who use steroids are aware of the harms they are opening themselves up to.

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