The pressure on men to have pumped-up muscles and rippling six packs has led to an eight-fold rise in the number of people injecting steroids in five years.
New data from needle exchanges across the country suggests up to a million are using anabolic steroids to quickly build up muscles and boost performance in the gym or in sport.
They are able to buy steroids easily online, and then quickly become addicted, endangering their long-term physical and mental health.
An investigation by ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain has found that the number of intravenous steroid users at one needle exchange in South Wales increased from 269 to 2161 between 2011 and 2016.
There was also a 50% rise in calls to the Welsh Drug and Alcohol helpline about steroids over the same period.
Research by the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University suggests those who inject steroids are more at risk of HIV infection than heroin users.
Meanwhile in Essex, drugs charity Open Road said over 50% of visits to needle exchanges are by steroid users, with 32% being new steroid users. A quarter of these are teenagers.
It also found increased steroid use at needle exchanges in Glasgow, Cheshire, Merseyside, Middlesbrough, Warrington and Manchester.
Researchers spoke to Joseph Kean, who runs The Bridge drugs project in Bradford, who said gym owners come in for needles to give out to their members once they recognise they have a problem in their establishment.
The Good Morning Britain report, out tomorrow, is presented by ex-Made In Chelsea star Spencer Matthews , who was forced to leave ITV’s I’m A Celebrity after he confessed to being a steroid user.
The report found that boys as young as 14 could be taking the performance-enhancing drugs.
Director of the Centre for Public Health Jim McVeigh says the UK is facing an epidemic as the age of those taking steroids becomes younger.
“It is about looking for a stylised body image, well-defined abs,” he says. “They want to look good with their shirt off, look like what is portrayed in TV, in films, on the front of magazines, like men with very good physiques.
“This is hard to achieve unless they are absolutely committed to training and nutrition, so they turn to anabolic steroids as a replacement.”
Mr McVeigh says the teenagers taking steroids have little concern for the long-term effects.
Side-effects of anabolic steroids include aggression, paranoia and violent mood swings. The condition has become known as “roid rage”, which causes heavy steroid users to suffer hallucinations and have suicidal thoughts.
Although it is against the law to supply illegal steroids, possessing the substances is not a criminal offence – and the drugs are only a click away.
Adam Trice, 32, started taking steroids at 19. They left him feeling suicidal and he was just weeks away from death. He now helps other users quit.
“I felt like Superman and then I come off and felt like average Joe,” he tells GMB. “Everything is heightened, you’re stronger, you’re more confident. But I had a lot of mental health problems. I tried to take my own life three times.”
Doctors told him he was a month away from heart failure, so he quit. “I didn’t want my kids to see me die,” he says.
Talking of his own experience, Spencer, 28, says: “I was unaware of any dangers surrounding steroids as I had never given steroids a thought.
“I had a boxing fight coming up and the guy I was fighting was quite a bit bigger than me, so as well as my 8,000 calorie a day and rigorous gym routine, I made the stupid mistake of trying to cut a corner.
“I just wanted to be as strong and heavy for the fight as I could, so took some poor advice.
“I was lucky that it was for a short period and they had no effect on me.”
- Good Morning Britain, ITV, weekdays from 6am
The dangers of gym drugs
TV doctor Hilary Jones says: “It’s pretty widespread in gyms. Everybody has access to these substances. There is a huge temptation for young guys in our society to look bigger and stronger and gain a false confidence through that, without regard to any of the side-effects that occur.
“People are taking these substances in massively higher doses than occur in the body, even a hundred times higher than you’d use therapeutically with a medical prescription, which combine with resistance exercises like weight-lifting to build muscle quicker.
“However, what a lot of people are doing is thinking they can take the steroids without exercising that much. They are more at risk. That is why we are seeing a lot of people with kidney damage, liver tumours and the other common side-effects of large doses of anabolic steroids.
“I think we need to make people aware of the serious side-effects.
If you see a young guy built like Schwarzenegger, who is nearly bald, with acne, with stretch marks on his arms and legs, and is quite aggressive and moody, then you are probably seeing the superficial tell-tale signs of steroid use.
“But what you can’t see is what is going on inside the body: higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, low sperm count, infertility, testicular shrinkage – the list is extensive. There are plenty of cases of fairly young people having heart attacks as a result of anabolic steroid use.”