Topical Steroids

Topical steroids are an effective topical treatment for skin conditions such as rashes, eczema, and psoriasis. Steroids help to suppress the inflammation of the skin that is caused by flare-ups of eczema and other rashes that occur on the upper layer of the dermis. Topical steroids help to relieve the itching caused by a variety of skin conditions, which in turn prevents a possible infection from occurring when the affected area is scratched. In addition, topical steroids often prove to be an effective treatment for vitiligo, atopic dermatitis, lichen sclerosus and several other skin conditions. While these creams and ointments are not a cure for eczema or other skin ailments, they do relieve symptoms such as itching, inflammation and redness.

Types of Topical Steroids

Topical steroids may also be referred to as corticosteroids. The most common topical corticosteroid used for rashes or other skin conditions is hydrocortisone. Cortisone is a naturally occurring hormone that the body produces to fight inflammation. However, the cortisone chemical that is produced within our bodies naturally is created and distributed at levels that are not high enough to self treat skin inflammation effectively. Topical corticosteroids are more concentrated with synthetic forms of cortisone and are therefore more potent, which generally makes them a very successful method for treating the symptoms of skin rashes quickly and thoroughly. Very mild forms of hydrocortisone are available as over-the-counter medications, but stronger dosages are available by prescription to relieve skin-irritating conditions.

Topical steroids are available in various strengths. Different strengths may also be used for different parts of the body or be related to the length of treatment. A strong topical steroid may be inappropriate for skin that is thin and delicate, and a mild steroid concentration may not be strong enough to effectively treat a condition appearing on an area of thick skin. Since topical steroids can be used for only so long before the body become immune to them, a mild prescription may be selected to prolong treatment. Lower strength corticosteroids are typically safe to use for up to three months at a time, while highly concentrated formulations may only be recommended for three weeks of use at a time. Doctors will prescribe a topical steroid with the appropriate strength for the individual's skin and condition.

Side Effects of Topical Steroids

Most people who use topical steroids do not experience any side effects at all. However, depending on the strength of the corticosteroid and the length of time it is used, side effects may occur, which may include:

  • Atrophy or thinning of the skin
  • Burning or stinging
  • Stretch marks
  • Acne
  • Darkening of the skin

When topical corticosteroids are applied correctly, they can be an effective treatment option for many skin related conditions.

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Virginia Cleaver, PharmD, RPh, CPh

Virginia Cleaver is a clinical pharmacist with experience working in retail, mail-order pharmacy, institutional and managed care environments. She is a

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