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How do anabolic steroids interact with the immune system?

High doses of anabolic steroids reduce the amounts of immune globulin A, G, and M in the blood.(1-4) These proteins, known medically as IgA, IgG, and IgM, are part of the body's humoral immune system. These antibodies that circulate in the bloodstream and attack invading bacteria. Having fewer of them may make a person more likely to develop a serious infection.

Steroid injection can carry many kinds of bacteria and viruses past the protective skin and into the blood, causing infection. The use of syringes without strict sanitary and sterile conditions can transmit infectious hepatitis, a life-threatening disease. Needle-sharing can lead to AIDS and other blood-borne diseases.(5) There are two documented cases of AIDS transmission traced to needle-sharing in the gym.(6,7)

By contrast, anabolic steroids increase the activity of the natural killer cells.(3,4) Another of the body's defenses against infection, natural killer cells are specialized white blood cells that attack specific viruses and bacteria and help to prevent tumor formation.(8) Increased natural killer cell activity could be helpful to the body.(4) However, overactive natural killer cells could also attack the body's own tissues, leading to diseases that are known medically as "autoimmune diseases."(4)


1. Yesalis CE, Wright JE, Bahrke MS. Epidemiological and policy issues in the measurement of the long term health effects of anabolic-androgenic steroids. Sports Medicine 1989 Sep;8(3):129-38.

2. Johnson MD. Steroids. Adolescent Med 1991 Feb;2(1):79-93.

3. Kleiner SM. Performance-enhancing aids in sport - health consequences and nutritional alternatives. J Amer Coll Nutr 1991 Apr;10(2):163-76.

4. Calabrese LH, Kleiner SM, Barna BP, Skibinski CI, Kirkendall DT, Lahita RG, Lombardo JA. The effects of anabolic steroids and strength training on the human immune response. Med Sci Sports Exercise 1989 Aug;21(4):386-92.

5. Amsel Z, Genser SG, Haverkos HW. Anabolic steroid use among male high school seniors. JAMA J Am Med Assoc 1989 May;261(18):2639-40.

6. Wagner JC. Abuse of drugs used to enhance athletic performance. American Journal Of Hospital Pharmacy 1989 Oct;46:2059-67.

7. Scott MJ, Scott MJ. HIV infection associated with injections of anabolic steroids. JAMA J Am Med Assoc 1989 Jul;262(2):207- 8.

8. Wilson CB. The cellular immune system and its role in host defense. In: eds. Principles and practice of infectious diseases. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1990, 119.

by Trent Tschirgi, R. Ph. (c) 1992 University of Maryland Office of Substance Abuse Studies. All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: The information presented is intended to be used for educational purposes only. The statements made have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (U.S.). These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any condition or disease. Please consult with your own physician or health care practitioner regarding any suggestions and recommendations made.