In my case, steroids control the painful symptoms of a temporary auto-immune condition called polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). Others take steroids for inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease, chronic asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Steroids truly are wonder drugs — life-savers in some cases — that for decades have been relied on for their ability to reduce inflammation.
But they have some unpleasant effects on physical appearance that patients are often embarrassed to talk about. It is time for us to come out.
As head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, I am meant to talk about subjects others find difficult to discuss. How strange that one of those subjects should be my own body.
As you can imagine, drugs with so much power have side-effects when taken long-term — prednisolone, the most commonly taken long-term steroid, can cause osteoporosis after just a few months.
But the potential medical consequences hardly bother me on a day-to-day basis. What makes me miserable is the way steroids make me look. That smooth skin comes at a price — we steroid-takers call it the hamster face.
‘You could buy yourself a little wheel to spin round on, Mum, ’ said my teenage daughter Hettie.
She did tell me I was still her beautiful mother ‘underneath’. At least she was honest. Many people have told me I look just the same — does this mean I’ve always looked like a hamster?
Doctors call our chubby chops ‘moon face’. It’s caused partly by water retention, but also by the peculiar way in which steroids redistribute fat round the body.
Dorothy before: Steroids make takers look puffier because they cause water retention and redistribute fat to the face, back and midriff
We also have little humps on our backs just below the neck, known as ‘buffalo hump’. There is another weird fat deposit round our midriff. Meanwhile, our arms and legs lose muscle and fat. Some medics refer to us as ‘lemons on matchsticks’. Others call us ‘potatoes on sticks’. Obviously, they don’t say these names to our puffy faces.
Doctors are, of course, mainly concerned with the long-term medical benefits of taking steroids and so often don’t mention temporary changes in appearance to patients. I’ve interviewed several people who didn’t know until I told them that the weird fat deposit round their torso was caused by steroids.
Similarly a lot of doctors don’t, or hardly ever, mention the possibility that you’ll put on weight. In fact, someone on long-term steroids for PMR might expect to put on half a stone.
The higher the dose and the longer you are on steroids, the more weight you are likely to put on. This is because steroids make you feel hungry, affecting the areas in the brain that control feelings of hunger and satiety.
A study of PMR patients found more than two-fifths put on significant weight. Several people I know on steroids complain of weight gain of a stone or a stone and a half. I’ve heard of one woman who put on five stone.
My consultant did warn me about weight gain and advised me to surround myself with oranges (rather than crisps or chocolate).
Thank God she did. I quite often sit down and eat five, one after another. I can polish off two supermarket string bags of satsumas in a night. But despite eating healthily, I have still put on half a stone.
I don’t like the new me. I was invited to a party at which one of the key draws was the presence of the Leader of the Opposition. I looked at my puffiness in the mirror and just couldn’t face going out that night. I asked myself if it was rational for a woman to feel too unattractive to meet Ed Miliband. Still, I stayed at home.
Feeling isolated, I went on the internet and was hit by a cry of pain from across the world.
Someone with eosonophilia pneumonia — a lung condition — describes the love/hate relationship patients have with steroids: ‘I began to look like someone I didn’t even know. But the alternative to prednisolone was to stop breathing.’
Someone who’s had two organ transplants agrees. ‘It’s a lifesaver, but is hell for its side-effects.’
‘I would rather have the pain than a moon face and weight gain, ’ another wrote.
Some people feel steroids have had a serious effect on their social lives. ‘I miss being pretty. I used to love having so many friends, but now all I think of is how they talk behind my back about how I look, ’ said one woman.
I asked myself if it was rational for a woman to feel too unattractive to meet Ed Miliband. Still, I stayed at home