Doctors may be over-prescribing steroid tablets to asthma patients, putting them at greater risk for serious side effects.

Short courses of steroids can be effective at treating asthma, but a new study shows more than 25% of asthma patients have been prescribed potentially dangerous amounts of steroid tablets.

University of Queensland Professor John Upham, PhD, led a team of researchers in analyzing more than 120,000 cases in which asthma patients received one or more prescriptions for steroid tablets between 2014 and 2018. The research team also included scientists from Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth and Sydney.

While these steroid tablets have been the standard in treating asthma for decades, newer and safer medications are now available, including steroid inhalers. Dr. Upham said doctors should consider these medications for asthma before prescribing steroid tablets.

“Researchers found more than 25% of those patients were more likely to have a chronic condition,” Dr. Upham said in a press release , adding that repeated use of steroid tablets to treat asthma can result in significant, long-term effects, like diabetes, osteoporosis and cataracts.

Dr. Upham said the best way to prevent asthma attacks is by regularly using preventer inhalers, which have very few side effects and are just as effective as steroid tablets.

"Steroids taken through an inhaler are very safe. People occasionally get a bit of a reaction in their throat but that’s it. The steroid doesn’t get into the rest of their body," Dr. Upham said in an article in the Brisbane Times . "In tablets, it goes all the way through your body and can affect everything from your brain, your bones, your skin, the whole box and dice.”

Patients should feel comfortable asking their doctors to explore other options before trying steroid tablets, Dr. Upham wrote.

"Better approaches are needed to educate and support asthma patients, and encourage them to use preventer inhalers regularly."

Around 2.5 million Australians have asthma, and the condition affects more women than men.