Teen athletes and performance-enhancing drugs: a lose-lose situation

Name the sport and it likely has a famous athlete who’s used performance enhancement drugs to win big. Now, with the recent headlines involving Lance Armstrong and doping, it’s the perfect opportunity to talk to our kids about what’s right and what’s wrong. Win or no win.  


Doping is when athletes use prohibited substances or methods to unfairly improve their athletic performance. There are over 100 drugs banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Some of these drugs have enticed our young high school athletes.


Steroids. The steroids that are abused are different than steroids commonly prescribed by doctors to treat asthma and other conditions.  Steroids that are abused are anabolic-androgenic steroids and androstenedione. They are artificial versions of testosterone, a hormone that all of us, male and female, have naturally in our bodies. People abuse them to increase muscle size and strength. Taken orally or injected, they are so common that they have their own slang names: D, Deca, D-Bol, Test, Roids, Juice, Slop, or Sauce. Almost four percent of high school students have taken steroids illegally.  More boys abuse steroids than girls, and the rates rise as they move through high school. When taken to enhance sports performance, they are not natural and they are definitely not harmless.


Steroids have many side effects...

In males:

  • Enlarged breasts
  • Shrunken testicles and sexual dysfunction

In females:

  • Irregular periods

In both males and females:

  • Stunted growth
  • Baldness
  • Severe acne
  • Liver cancer
  • Heart disease
  • “Roid rage”
  • HIV or hepatitis if injected

Other performance enhancing drugs and methods have real medical uses.  But when they get in the hands of an athlete who wants to “win at all costs” they can be lethal.


Growth hormone (GH) is a hormone found in our bodies and doctors use it to treat medical conditions such as growth hormone deficiency.  In the wrong hands, it is abused to stimulate production of testosterone.  Although its use is not as widely studied as is steroid use, a study of a group of American high school students found that five percent had used GH. GH has harmful side effects when abused, including joint swelling, muscle weakness, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, muscle pain, and HIV or hepatitis if injected.


Erythropoietin (EPO) is used by doctors to treat patients with severe anemia because it boosts the production of red blood cells and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin. In the wrong hands, EPO is abused so muscles can work harder and longer. In healthy people using it the wrong way, EPO injections can cause the blood to become so thick that it strains the heart and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke .


Transfusions save the lives of bleeding patients by directly giving them blood. In the wrong hands, “blood doping” is abused so muscles can work harder and longer. Risks include HIV or hepatitis from needles and reactions from improperly stored blood. Blood doping is done two ways:

  • by removing two units of blood from the athlete several weeks before the competition, freezing it, and then thawing it and injecting it back into the athlete before the competition
  • by injecting fresh blood from a donor into the athlete

Gene therapy is used by doctors to fix defective genes or to replace missing genes and has been used to help patients with problems including sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and metabolic diseases.  In the wrong hands, “gene doping” is abused to boost endurance, strength, and tissue repair.


Say “nope to dope.”  Talk to teens about the risks of performance enhancing drugs before they let the “thrill of victory” lead them to do what’s wrong. Help them redefine success as personal improvement and doing their best. The best athletes pay close attention to the basics:

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