Male pattern baldness, stunted growth and increased facial and body hair aren't what teenage girls are after when they dabble in the world of anabolic steroids. Researchers have found that up to 5 percent of high school girls and 7 percent of middle-school girls have acknowledged using anabolic steroids at least once.
Many of the girls are taking synthetic forms of the male hormone testosterone to get thin; others are athletes looking to get faster and stronger. Depending on when, how much and what they're taking, and how long they take it, the short- and long-term effects can be devastating.
"You're messing around with your endocrine system in a way we can't predict," said Dr. Gary Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who recently testified before Congress about anabolic steroid use in professional baseball and football. "It's playing a very dangerous game of Russian roulette--you don't know which side effect is in which chamber of the gun."
In teen girls, adverse effects include a deepened voice, acne, male pattern hair loss, clitoral enlargement, and increased facial and body hair. With the exception of acne, which can leave scars, these side effects are considered irreversible even after anabolic steroid use stops. Menstrual periods can also be disrupted, and steroids can close off growth plates in youngsters, stunting growth.
"They pretty much hit every system in the body," said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director, Institute for Sports Medicine, at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "Everyone thinks of steroids increasing muscle mass and strength, but they actually weaken tendons. I see lots of tendon ruptures and tendinitis in current users." Because steroids raise "bad" and total cholesterol, and lower "good" cholesterol, blood vessels can be damaged, increasing the risk of coronary artery disease.
"There's definitely a risk of infertility because [steroids] impair the function of the ovaries," LaBella added. "And the hair loss in the scalp often doesn't come back."
While taking the steroids (high doses of Turinabol) "they'd get out of the pool and feel awful. The doctors would tell them not to worry, and the next day they'd be in tears and falling apart, telling doctors they couldn't control their emotions."
The depression, mood swings and psychosis that can occur while using steroids don't always disappear when steroid use stops.
"It can take months to years, depending on how you were affected while taking them," LaBella said.
"Just hearing that the number of adolescents using this is on the rise means this is an opportunity to intervene before the number gets bigger," LaBella said. "We need to educate parents, primary care physicians, coaches and teachers and kids. Although true to the adolescent way of thinking, they don't always care about what will happen two years from now or 10 years from now."
Warning signs of steroid use
- Sudden weight gain.
- Sudden onset of acne, especially when there's no family history of it.
- Aggressiveness, fighting on the playing field, sharp mood swings.
- Hair loss (scalp).