Hydrocortisone is a common topical treatment for eczema that may help soothe symptoms of the condition, including inflamed, itchy, and irritated skin.

This article discusses eczema and hydrocortisone cream. It also discusses other treatments that may help reduce symptoms and answers some common questions about eczema and hydrocortisone.

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Eczema is a group of conditions that cause skin itch and irritation. Eczema can also cause skin redness, dryness, and swelling.

It often occurs in young children, though it can develop at any age. There are several types of eczema:

The exact cause of eczema is unknown. However, genetics may play a role, since children have a higher chance of getting eczema if one or both of their parents have it or another atopic condition. Another genetic cause may be a deficiency of the protein filaggrin. This deficiency can cause dry, itchy skin.

Other factors that may worsen eczema symptoms include emotional stress and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

In addition to genetics, the following irritants and allergens may trigger eczema symptoms in some people:

  • some fabrics
  • certain fragrances
  • dry air
  • extreme heat or cold
  • some metals — primarily nickel
  • certain foods
  • natural substances, including:
    • pollen
    • animal dander
    • mold
    • dust mites
    • smoke
  • irritants in products such as:
    • shampoos and conditioners
    • cleaning products
    • soaps
    • laundry detergents

Itchy skin is the most common symptom of eczema and occurs in most cases. Typically, it is mild to moderate. Some additional symptoms of eczema are:

Hydrocortisone cream is a low potency steroid medication that lowers inflammation and helps temporarily reduce eczema rashes and itching by increasing natural components in the skin. Topical hydrocortisone treatments may also help alleviate eczema symptoms such as swelling, redness, and irritation.

Hydrocortisone products for the skin typically range in strength from 0.1% to 2.5%. Over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone products may have a mild effect. Stronger hydrocortisone treatments may be available with a prescription.

A person should consult a doctor to find out the appropriate strength based on the severity of their symptoms.

Hydrocortisone treatments may be available as:

  • creams
  • ointments
  • lotions
  • gels

Application tips

Usually, a person will need to use hydrocortisone treatments for only a short time. A person should consult a healthcare professional to discuss how long they should use hydrocortisone medications.

To use hydrocortisone to treat eczema, a person may apply a small amount of the product to the affected area up to 4 times per day for up to 7 days. They should follow the instructions on the label unless a healthcare professional gives them different instructions.

To use a hydrocortisone product, a person may:

  • use clean, dry hands to apply a small of product to the affected area
  • apply the product in the direction of hair growth
  • avoid applying the product to cuts or to broken or infected skin
  • wait at least 10 minutes after applying hydrocortisone to apply other moisturizers or topical treatments
  • apply different skin products at different times of the day
  • wait at least 10 minutes before putting on a bandage
  • avoid using the product on their face, around their eyes, and on the area around their genitals, unless a doctor instructs them otherwise
  • wash their hands after applying the product, unless the person is treating eczema on their hands

Possible side effects

Side effects from mild hydrocortisone treatments are possible, though they are not common if people use the products for less than 4 weeks. During the first few days of use, a person may experience a burning or stinging sensation.

A person should not apply hydrocortisone to infected skin, as it may allow the infection to spread.

Hydrocortisone products may cause side effects such as:

  • dry, cracked skin
  • itching
  • burning
  • skin discoloration

Strong hydrocortisone treatments are more likely to cause serious side effects if a person uses them on a large area of skin for an extended period. These side effects may include:

If a person is pregnant or nursing, they may be able to use OTC hydrocortisone treatments after checking with their doctor.

Children under age 10 should not use hydrocortisone treatments without the approval of a healthcare professional.

Treatments for eczema may help alleviate symptoms and reduce flare-ups. The effectiveness of treatments varies among individuals. A person can consult a doctor to find the most effective treatment or combination of treatments for their symptoms.

If hydrocortisone is ineffective, a healthcare professional may prescribe:

  • other topical medications
  • oral steroids
  • immune-suppressing medications
  • immune-suppressing injections
  • phototherapy

In some cases, certain foods may trigger a person’s eczema. However, a person should not make any significant dietary changes without speaking with a healthcare professional. A doctor may refer someone to a dietitian to help them manage any potential allergies.

Below are some of the most common questions and answers about hydrocortisone and eczema.

Can hydrocortisone cream make eczema worse?

Hydrocortisone cream may cause side effects that worsen eczema, especially if a person uses it for an extended period on a large area of skin. Some people experience stinging or burning during the first days of use.

Other people may have an allergy to hydrocortisone itself or to another ingredient in the hydrocortisone cream.

How long does it take hydrocortisone to work on eczema?

Usually, hydrocortisone will start to work on eczema within a few days, depending on the severity of symptoms and the healing timeline of each person. Most of the time, a person will need to use it for only up to a week at a time, unless their doctor advises otherwise.

How often should someone apply hydrocortisone to eczema?

Typically, a person should apply hydrocortisone to eczema up to 4 times daily for up to 7 days. They should read the product instruction label and follow the advice of their pharmacist or doctor to determine the correct frequency and duration of treatment.

Hydrocortisone may be an effective topical treatment for eczema, helping to reduce itching, irritation, and soreness. OTC and prescription products for eczema are available in varying strengths.

Most of the time, eczema responds well to hydrocortisone and symptoms start to subside within a few days.

However, a person should consult a healthcare professional if they have symptoms that worsen over time and do not respond to treatment.