Your teenaged son may think he’ll hit home runs like Mark McGwire if he uses performance-enhancing steroids.
But like the former St. Louis Cardinals slugger who in January 2010 admitted to using steroids when he broke baseball’s homerun record in 1998, your child will find that steroid use is a perilous path—both illegal and unsafe.
Teens who use anabolic steroids are at risk for serious medical consequences, including liver and heart problems, said Scott Kaar, M.D., director of sports medicine and children’s surgery at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
“The big debate is whether it’s permanent or not,” Dr. Kaar said.
One reason experts don’t understand how the use of steroids affects long-term health, Dr. Kaar said, is because it’s difficult to study.
“How are you going to take 1,000 kids or adults even and give them all steroids and see what happens a year or five years or 10 years later?” Dr. Kaar asked. “First, it’s illegal, and then who’s going to consent to it?”
Still, the adverse consequences of taking anabolic steroids are clearly documented, he said. “Because steroids are a version of sex hormones, steroid use affects your sex organs like the testes and ovaries. It affects hair growth both for men and women. It affects acne. It can affect the liver and the heart.”
How do steroids seem to help?
People take steroids because they help build muscle mass and strength beyond what they would achieve by just lifting weights, Dr. Kaar said.
Athletes also sometimes use growth hormones to help them recover faster from their workouts and exercise sessions, he said. That lessens the soreness the athlete gets from working out in the gym, lifting weights, or running. Instead of baseball players limiting their participation in games to four or five games a week, they can play every day, he said.
“You and me, without growth hormones, to get best results might have to work out three days a week and take off three days in between to give our bodies a chance to rest so we don’t over-train,” Dr. Kaar said.
Steroids are typically injected into the muscle so they are absorbed systemically throughout the entire body, not just where the injection occurred, he said.
Young athletes pushed by pressure to succeed
Nausheen Hasan, pediatric clinical pharmacist for St. John’s Mercy Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, agreed that steroid use is a danger to teens.
“The risk of steroids is definitely high in high school kids because many of them are young athletes,” she said. “They go into football. Many of them go into baseball. There’s a lot of pressure so they feel the need to use steroids.”
The pressure teens sometimes feel from adults may push them toward steroid use, she said. They may feel inadequate and unable to live up to expectations set for them.
“Sometimes those pressures can actually come from a parent or coach without their realizing it,” she said. “For a parent it’s important not to force your child into a sport or into doing something they’re not comfortable doing.”
Teens use steroids to gain acceptance, to make it onto a sports team, or because of peer pressure, Hasan said. “For guys it’s about trying to get a girlfriend.”
While mainly boys use steroids, some girls who are “hardcore athletes” use them too, Hasan said.
Kids can usually find steroids through word of mouth on the street, Hasan said. “Or, if you’re creative, you can look on the internet,” she added.
Parents can often tell if their child is using steroids by looking at the child, Hasan said. Some of the physical side effects of steroid use in boys include instant weight, baldness, excessive acne, or more aggressiveness than usual.
“In a girl taking steroids, you might see masculization, especially excessive facial hair,” Hasan said. “The child may tremble. But the main thing to look for is instant weight gain.”
Know steroids’ dangers
Long-term effects can include increased infections, liver cancer, and heart attacks even in young children.
“The side effects of steroids are unwanted and very dangerous,” Hahn said. “Long-term, you can see connective tissue injury. You can see stunted growth. You see this a lot in boys where they don’t grow any taller than they already are.
“Boys don’t know these side effects when they’re using these steroids. They just think, ‘Oh, I’m going to get bigger.’”
Hasan and Dr. Kaar agree that parenting children who are athletes means that parents should be aware of steroids, know their dangers, and discuss them with their children.
“If your teenaged son is on the football team, and between last year and this year one of the kids has a much more aggressive personality and is much more muscular and it seems kind of odd, you can have a discussion about steroids,” Dr. Kaar said.
“It would be good to simply teach them about steroids, going over the adverse effects,” he added. “But research shows that teaching them about it doesn’t really convince them that it’s a bad thing.”
Still, he recommends talking with your teens about steroids.
“Sit down and explain what can happen to them when they take these things—whether it’s the acne or how it affects your testes or your aggressiveness or your heart,” he said. “You can really make a pretty compelling case that it’s not in their best interest.”
Once a teen starts to experience side effects, they may not want to continue using steroids, Hasan said. “But I do think high schools should have more awareness.”
While steroids are not addictive, seeing results is, she said.
“It’s not that it’s addictive in nature,” she said. “It’s more that they see themselves start to bulk up, to get bigger and start to look the way they think is acceptable. In that aspect, it’s addictive.”
Unethical and illegal
Then there are the moral and legal issues.
“The fact is it’s illegal and it’s cheating,” Dr. Kaar said. McGwire and other adult athletes are finding their reputations damaged and “their supposed great accomplishments” tarnished, keeping them out of the Hall of Fame, he added.
And the fact is, users are often caught.
“It’s pretty hard to get away with it,” Dr. Kaar said. “Pro athletes and even college athletes are being tested all the time. A teenage kid who thinks he’s going to get away with this is wrong. It may help him while he’s in high school, theoretically, despite all the adverse bad things that can happen, but he’s not going to get away with it long-term.
“Even people with millions and millions of dollars like Alex Rodriguez and Jose Conseco—they all eventually get caught. It’s just a matter of time. And you see what happens to them.”
For more information:
Here are some websites that Hasan suggests parents check out.
Kathie Sutin is an award-winning freelance journalist based in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in writing about medical issues, travel, parenting, education, business, food and people. She has three children.
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