Girls are getting their hands on the same dangerous testosterone pills, shots and creams that have created a scandal in major league baseball and other sports. Often, these are the same girls who have eating disorders, according to some research.
"There's been a substantial increase for girls during the 1990s, and it's at an all-time high right now," said Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Pennsylvania State University.
Lloyd Johnston, a University of Michigan professor who heads an annual government-sponsored survey on risky behavior by young people, said: "Other than pedophilia, this is the most secret behavior I've ever encountered."
Overall, up to about 5 percent of high school girls and 7 percent of middle-school girls admit trying anabolic steroids at least once, with use of rising steadily since 1991, various government and university studies have shown.
Researchers say that most girls are using steroids to get bigger and stronger on the playing field, and they attribute some of the increase in steroid use to girls' rising participation in sports. But plenty of other girls are using steroids to give themselves a slightly muscular look, they say.
"With young women, you see them using it more as a weight control and body fat reduction" method, said Jeff Hoerger, who runs the staff counseling program at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
In the past couple of years, he has helped two young women using steroids — one an 11th-grader with "an average figure" whose swimmer friend suggested steroids would help with weight loss. "She was just looking for quick results," Hoerger said.
The sports medicine division at the Oregon Health and Science University found that two-thirds of Oregon high school girls who admitted using steroids were not athletes and that girls who were considering taking steroids had tried other, risky ways to get thin.
"They were more likely to have eating disorders and to abuse diuretics, amphetamines and laxatives," said Dr. Linn Goldberg, head of the division.
In teenage girls, the side effects from taking male sex hormones can include severe acne, smaller breasts, deeper voice, irregular periods, excess facial and body hair, depression, paranoia and the fits of anger dubbed "roid rage." Steroids also carry higher risks of heart attack, stroke and some forms of cancer.
Researchers say youngsters generally get illegal anabolic steroids on the black market from relatives or friends or from the local gym. At least one study indicates some parents and coaches supply steroids to teen athletes.
Dr. Eric Small, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on sports medicine, said adults should gently ask youngsters about possible steroid use.
"Talking about supplements and steroids needs to start in the third grade," Small said. "If you wait till ninth grade, it's too late."
By Linda A. Johnson