Topical steroids are a form of corticosteroid medication that is available as a cream or ointment to be applied directly onto the skin. Corticosteroids are primarily used in the treatment of skin inflammation caused by conditions such as allergies, psoriasis, and eczema. They are thought to be effective at treating these conditions by functioning in the same manner as the body’s naturally occurring corticosteroids, which are hormonal substances responsible for controlling inflammation and other immune system responses. The type of topical steroid that is prescribed will typically vary depending on the severity of the condition because the different versions of the medication may widely range in potency.
One of the most mild and commonly used topical steroids is hydrocortisone. It may be prescribed by a doctor or purchased over-the-counter. Hydrocortisone cream is often recommended for the treatment of itching or rash associated with insect bites, poison ivy, eczema, or allergic skin reactions due to contact with fragrances, dyes, metals, or other irritants. The product is generally advised to be applied in a thin layer to affected areas as needed, up to four times per day, until the symptoms subside; however, acne, redness, and lesions may occur as side effects.
If hydrocortisone is not effective at relieving symptoms, a higher strength topical steroid may be prescribed by a doctor. One of the most commonly prescribed moderately potent topical steroids is fluocinonide cream, which contains corticosteroids that are approximately 50 times more powerful than basic over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. Fluocinonide cream may be recommended for treating the extreme itching, redness, and thick patches of accumulated dry skin cells associated with skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. It is generally advised to be applied two to four times per day and tends to have the same potential side effects as the milder strength versions.
The most potent forms of topical steroids are usually only recommended to be used for periods of no longer than three weeks at a time. One type of highly potent topical steroid is betamethasone dipropionate, which may be used for severe cases of inflammation from conditions such as psoriasis or lupus. If applied too often or for extended periods of time, highly potent corticosteroid medications may be absorbed into the skin, causing damage to the internal organs. The highest strength medications may be more likely to cause skin damage, such as tendency to bruise easily, extreme redness, and dilated blood vessels on the skin, so they may often only be recommended if lesser strength versions are not effective.