Steroids, also called glucocorticoids or corticosteroids, are drugs made to mimic cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in the body. Cortisol is a strong anti-inflammatory hormone that does many things in the body.1,2

Steroids are used to manage acute (short-term, rapid) attacks of neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMO).3

How do steroids work?

Steroids (corticosteroids) are strong anti-inflammatory drugs. When given in doses higher in amount than your body normally makes, steroids quickly decrease inflammation.3,4

In NMO, high-dose steroids are vital to help prevent vision loss during an attack of inflammation of the nerve fibers in the eye (optic neuritis). High-dose steroids also help to prevent permanent damage to the spinal cord during an NMO attack that includes inflammation of the spinal cord (transverse myelitis).5

NMO attacks involve nerve damage caused by inflammation in the central nervous system (CNS). The goal of steroid treatment is to control that inflammation and stop acute damage.5,6

Examples of steroids

There are many different types of steroids available. The most common steroid used for NMO is intravenous (IV) Solu-Medrol® (methylprednisolone sodium succinate). Oral (swallowed pill) steroids may be prescribed after IV therapy. Prednisone and prednisolone are the most common oral steroids used.3,7,8

What are the possible side effects of steroids?

Steroids are strong drugs that can be effective in decreasing inflammation in NMO.

The benefits of taking steroids, however, must be weighed against the many possible side effects known to result from long-term use, especially at high doses.4

Short-term side effects of steroids may include:4

  1. High blood pressure
  2. Mental effects like mood swings, behavior changes, confusion
  3. Nausea
  4. High blood sugar, which can cause or worsen diabetes

Side effects of long-term steroid use may include:4

  1. Fluid retention
  2. Stomach ulcers
  3. Round appearance to the face (moon face)
  4. Weakening of bones (osteoporosis), which increases the risk of fractures
  5. Weight gain
  6. Increased pressure in the eye (glaucoma)
  7. Decreased adrenal gland hormone, which can lead to severe tiredness (fatigue), muscle weakness, and loss of appetite

These are not all the possible side effects of steroids. Talk to your doctor about what to expect when taking steroids. You should also call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you when taking steroids.

Things to know about steroids

It is difficult to predict how fast or how completely steroids will work for each person. Steroids may or may not be effective for you.

It is common for doctors to prescribe high-dose IV Solu-Medrol for an acute (rapid onset of symptoms) attack of NMO. The most common symptoms treated with high-dose steroids are optic neuritis and transverse myelitis.3

IV therapy usually lasts for 5 days. The decision to continue steroids or add a new treatment is based on your symptoms and MRI findings at the end of 5 days of steroids. Steroids may be continued in pill form for a period of time after IV therapy.3

Your doctor may prescribe other drugs to help reduce the chances of stomach ulcers while you are taking steroids.

Steroids are used in NMO for rapid relief of symptoms from an attack. High-dose steroids do not prevent further attacks of the disease. Because of this, your doctor will prescribe other drugs and treatments to help prevent attacks and further nerve damage. Low-dose steroids may be needed for long-term therapy. Talk to your doctor about your treatment plan, as well as the risks and benefits of all drugs.3,6

Before beginning treatment for NMO, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

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Written by: Katie Murphy | Last reviewed: September 2021