Prednisone is a corticosteroid that’s commonly prescribed for a variety of reasons and, in general, thought to be harmless. There are some side effects associated with taking it, but these are usually tolerable in comparison to the benefits of using the drug. But if that’s true, what is “prednisone withdrawal”? Why does a seemingly safe medication have a condition tied to it that’s usually reserved for harder, more addictive substances?
In this piece, we’ll discuss what prednisone is and how it works to produce the effects it’s commonly prescribed for. We’ll explore the potential for prednisone abuse and withdrawal. We’ll also discuss ways to stop taking prednisone to decrease the potential for adverse side effects.
How Common Is Prednisone Withdrawal?
If you’re currently taking prednisone or have in the past, you may be familiar with the feeling of prednisone withdrawal. This can occur when you stop taking your medication all at once after using it for an extended period of time.
You may start experiencing symptoms such as weakness, mood swings, fatigue and lightheadedness, among others. You may start to feel like you don’t have the energy to get through the day or unusually high-strung and anxious. It may seem as though your body has fallen out of balance. There’s a good reason for this — one that we’ll explore further on.
No matter how the symptoms manifest themselves, however, prednisone withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable. This can be concerning, especially when you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms after stopping prednisone, a drug advertised as “low risk.” Prednisone withdrawal is rare, but it happens, so what causes it? To answer this question, we have to look at how the drug works to produce its desired effects.
What Is Prednisone?
Prednisone is a corticosteroid (commonly called a “steroid”) that closely resembles the natural steroid hormone cortisol. It suppresses the body’s natural immune response to reduce inflammation, arthritis pain and the effects of a range of conditions. It’s prescribed to treat or lessen the discomfort associated with allergies, autoimmune disorders, cancer and more.
By increasing cortisol levels in the body, prednisone effectively dampens the immune response that causes many of the conditions it’s prescribed to address. However, while a person is taking prednisone, their body gets accustomed to higher cortisol levels. This is where dependence can begin.
Is There Such a Thing as Prednisone Addiction?
Unlike many substances, “addiction” to prednisone isn’t a concern. However, when your body becomes dependent on a certain level of cortisol, it can feel as though you need the drug to function. If you’re using it for the right reasons, it also provides a benefit that can make it difficult to stop using.
Even if drugs like cortisol are less acutely dangerous than more addictive substances, there’s still the potential for dependence issues. Experts call addiction/dependence to corticosteroids “an unusual, but potentially serious complication of corticosteroid use.”
How Does Prednisone Dependence Work?
Under normal circumstances, cortisol regulates itself without the influence of medication. It assists in the body’s natural processes, like controlling stress and keeping the heart rate steady.
With the influence of prednisone, the increase in cortisol works to suppress the body’s immune response. When the drug works as intended, this lowers inflammation and other side effects of the body being attacked by its own immune system.
The problem is that taking prednisone for longer periods is fairly common due to the chronic nature of the conditions it’s prescribed for. When prednisone is taken for an extended period of time, the body starts to become accustomed to the increased levels of cortisol. This means that when the user stops taking prednisone, the body experiences a sudden drop in cortisol and is unprepared to regulate various processes at this lower level.
This can prompt a range of potential prednisone withdrawal symptoms, including:
- Mood instability
- Severe fatigue
- Body aches and joint pain
- Appetite fluctuations
- Nausea and vomiting
In most cases, these symptoms last one to two days after stopping prednisone, but they can be alarming if you’re not expecting them. This is the case for most people using the drug, because the warnings of dependence on the drug are minimal. When your body is out of rhythm, it can have a larger effect on your physical and mental health than you may realize.
If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms after stopping prednisone, the best thing to do is rest. Your hormone levels will soon equalize. If symptoms persist, you should seek medical attention.
How to Prevent Prednisone Withdrawal
There are some ways to prevent prednisone withdrawal from occurring in the first place:
1. Follow your doctor’s instructions any time you’re starting or stopping a medication.
Most people won’t start taking a new medication without a doctor’s guidance, but fewer people know this works the same way when stopping medications. Drugs change the way our bodies and brains function, so it’s important to remove these influences under medical supervision. With prednisone, your doctor can help you taper off the drug gradually, reducing the potential for withdrawal symptoms.
2. Stay on the medication only as long as you need to.
Dependence on drugs with lower abuse rates takes time to develop. Most experts recommend stopping prednisone long before this has a chance to occur. According to one site focused on prednisone for inflammatory bowel disease, “Steroids should ideally only be used for a short period of time to get over a flare-up or while long-term treatments become established.”
Drugs like prednisone aren’t intended for long-term use and may become dangerous when used for longer than recommended by medical professionals.
Getting the Help You Need
While addiction or dependence on prednisone is rare, it happens, and like all addictions, it doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can be affected by it.
If you or a loved one find yourself in a cycle of addiction or dependence on prednisone or another corticosteroid, FHE Health offers support and safe place to get clean. Call us today at (844) 299-0618 to learn how we can help.