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John Whyte, M.D., MPH Headshot

Are Student Athletes Taking Steroids?

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Does your son play high school football? If so, he could be among the 13 percent of teens playing high school football believed to be currently using steroids. So your daughter is surely safe if she plays a sport like basketball, right?

Sadly, no. The rate of steroid use for females playing high school basketball is 8.8 percent. And if you think those are small numbers your child can't be any part of, consider that 40 to 50 percent of high school and college athletes are using some sort of supplement with their workouts.

These sobering numbers are part of a scary trend among young athletes. All over the country, teenagers are looking for the best way to bulk up for a competitive advantage on the playing field, push some extra weight in the gym, or simply just to look "buff." They are finding this in increasingly popular anabolic androgenic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs/supplements.

According to the CDC, up to 11 percent of all high school males reported trying steroids, and 6 percent have taken them for an entire 8- to 12-week "cycle." This is a very real and dangerous problem in teens today, but where did it come from? After all, I don't even remember hearing about steroids when I was in high school.

In some ways, steroids have been a part of mainstream media since the muscle-men of the 1970s. The lure of a "buffed body" among teens, however, is more of a recent trend. A study from the University of Michigan showed that in 1992, 72 percent of high school seniors believed that those using steroids "risked harming themselves." In 2002, the same question found only 57 percent of the young athletes felt this way. An investigation by U.S. News and World Report found that 4 in 10 teenage steroid users were influenced by the belief that famous athletes were using them as well. That same survey found 57 percent of teen steroid users were prompted to use by reading muscle magazines -- and there are at least half a dozen of these magazines nowadays.

Or maybe it's simply the availability of steroids that is causing their use to skyrocket. One study noted that 44 percent of 12th grade students found it "very easy" or "fairly easy" to obtain steroids. That's nearly half of all seniors at your local high school!

This represents a huge problem when you consider the abundance of possible health effects of steroid use. These include:

•Liver disease, including cancer
•Increase in bad cholesterol and decrease in a good cholesterol -- a double whammy leading to heart attack and stroke
•Decreased testicular size, reduced sperm count, loss of sex drive and impotence
•Mood swings, aggression, irritability, depression and suicidal thoughts

So what do you do if you think your kid is using steroids or thinking about using them? Well, I suggest starting by simply talking to your kids about steroids today! Some studies have shown possible steroid use in children as young as 10. Educate yourself so you can give them accurate facts. Know the warnings signs. Many can be similar to typical teenage life, such as acne, mood swings and more private, secluded behavior, so it can be challenging to spot the signs.

But if these changes are accompanied by aggression, acne on the back, sudden increases in muscle mass, an escalation in gym visits and a "win-at-all-costs" attitude, then it may be time to be suspicious. I'm all for fitness, but it needs to be done in a way that promotes health, not injure it.

Remember that lifelong health and fitness patterns are established during teenage years. It's important to be a close part of that process with your child, teaching them safe and healthy fitness habits.

References:
1. Castillo, E., and R. Comstock. "Prevalence of Use of Performance-Enhancing Substances Among United States Adolescents." Pediatric Clinics of North America 54.4 (2007): 663-75. Print.
2. Schrof, Joannie M. "Pumped Up." US News and World Report, June 1, 1992, Volume 112 Issue 21, p54.
3. Gruber AJ, Pope HG Jr. Compulsive weight lifting and anabolic drug abuse among women rape victims. Comprehensive Psychiatry 40(4):273-277, 1999