Treatment Side Effects - Steroid Side Effects

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2018

Steroids are a type of medication that may be used alone or given along with other treatments for blood cancer. Also called corticosteroids, they are an anti-inflammatory medicine and may be used to treat certain blood cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma. Steroids can treat or prevent allergic reactions. They are also used to treat side effects, like nausea, vomiting, or lack of appetite that are caused by other treatments for blood cancer, like chemotherapy.1-3

Steroids commonly used in blood cancer patients include dexamethasone and prednisone. Dexamethasone may also be called by the trade names Decadron® or Hexadrol®. Prednisone may be called by the trade names Deltasone®, Liquid Pred®, Meticorten®, or Orasone®.2-4

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What side effects can be caused by steroids?

Like all medications, steroids may cause side effects. Not everyone experiences all the possible side effects, and most side effects go away after treatment is completed. Common side effects experienced with steroid use can include:

  • An increased appetite (potentially feeling hungry all the time) and weight gain
  • Irritability or crankiness
  • Insomnia, or difficulty sleeping
  • Swelling in the ankles or feet
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Weak muscles
  • Slow wound healing
  • Increase in blood sugar levels (people with diabetes may need their diabetes medications adjusted)2-4

Rarely, steroids may cause serious side effects that require immediate medical attention. Contact a doctor or seek emergency care immediately if you experience:

  • A fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or a fever with chills
  • An irregular or fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest or jaw pain
  • Sudden confusion2,3

These are not all the possible side effects that can be caused by steroids. If you experience anything unusual or symptoms that do not go away, talk to your doctor about them.

Managing side effects from steroids

Since taking steroids can increase a person's appetite and potentially make them feel hungry all the time, weight gain is common among people taking this treatment. Steroids can also make people retain fluid, causing swelling that can occur in their feet or ankles. Some diet changes can help prevent fluid retention and weight gain, including:

  • Eating foods lower in salt (sodium)
  • Using spices other than salt to season foods
  • Avoiding high-salt foods, like snack chips, pretzels, and processed foods
  • Consuming snacks that are lower in calories, like fruits and vegetables
  • Reducing calories through cooking foods by baking, roasting, or boiling, rather than frying4

Dietitians can provide additional guidance on strategies to maintain healthy nutrition and help reduce the side effects of weight gain and fluid retention.4