Eczema can cause patches of skin to become inflamed, itchy, cracked, and rough. Topical steroids are medications applied to the skin, and they can reduce inflammation and help the skin heal.

Roughly 10% of the United States population, or 31.6 million people, have some form of eczema. This condition can affect anyone, but it is more prevalent in young children, affecting as many as 25% of children in the U.S.

Eczema is an umbrella term for different skin conditions caused by an immune response to a trigger. Topical steroids can combat the symptoms of eczema in various ways. For example, they are anti-inflammatory, so they help relieve the inflammation involved in eczema.

In this article, we describe the effectiveness and safety of using steroid creams to treat eczema.

A person applying a steroid cream to treat their eczema.Share on Pinterest
Ake Ngiamsanguan/Getty Images

Topical steroids can reduce skin inflammation and irritation associated with eczema. Another name for these medications is corticosteroids.

They are available in many forms, such as creams, ointments, lotions, gels, and foams.

There are seven classes of topical steroids, based on their strength, with class 7 being the least potent.

Researchers are still unsure of the exact causes of eczema, but evidence suggests that it develops from a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and an overactive immune response to a trigger. The result is itchy, inflamed, and irritable skin.

Topical steroids can mimic the effects of hormones. They have many functions that make them effective for treating eczema. In addition to reducing inflammation, they can suppress overactivity of the immune system and help the blood vessels narrow, a process called vasoconstriction.

Doctors often prescribe topical steroids for eczema. How well these medications work can depend on several factors, such as the:

  • Active ingredient: Different types of these topical medications have different active ingredients.
  • Dosage: A doctor usually starts with the lowest dosage that is likely to be effective.
  • Area of skin: Steroids can more easily penetrate thinner skin than thicker skin.
  • Form of the medication: Creams, for example, are typically more effective on moist or weeping skin.
  • Frequency of application: It is important to use the recommended amount and avoid overuse, which can have adverse effects.
  • Method of application: Topical steroids absorb better into wet skin than dry skin. Using a wet wrap and covering the area in a bandage after applying the medication can increase the amount that the skin absorbs.

The strength, dosage, duration of use, and the specific medication can affect a person’s risk of side effects. These effects are less common when a person uses a mild medication for a short period. The aim is to use the most mild drug that is effective.

Some possible adverse effects of topical steroids include:

Doctors prescribe topical steroids for various skin issues, but because they can suppress the immune response, they may not be advisable for certain people.

Corticosteroids may exacerbate symptoms of other conditions, such as:

  • hypertension
  • diabetes
  • widespread infections
  • mental health conditions
  • low bone density
  • heart failure

Eczema is prevalent among children, and topical steroids are safe for them to use — as long as the person applying the medication follows the instructions of a healthcare professional carefully.

In terms of how much of a cream, gel, or ointment to use, doctors often measure this in fingertip units (FTUs). A doctor may recommend a certain number of FTUs based on the area of skin involved.

Steroid creams are also safe for pregnant and lactating people. A 2021 review notes that even large doses of very potent corticosteroids do not lead to low birth weight or size.

The risk of topical steroids interacting with other drugs is low, but before starting this treatment, a person should tell the prescribing doctor about any other medications and supplements that they use or vaccines that they have had recently.

It is important to follow a healthcare professional’s instructions carefully. Usually, they recommend using a topical steroid to ease symptoms of an eczema flare-up and reducing or stopping the treatment once the symptoms are under control.

The right amount of medication depends on the affected area. The doctor might give instructions in FTUs. This refers to the amount of the medication that could fit on the tip of an adult index finger. The National Eczema Association provides guidance about FTUs and areas affected by eczema.

While there is currently no cure for eczema, a wide range of treatments can manage the symptoms.

Beyond avoiding possible triggers and maintaining good skin health, a person might try:

  • Bathing, moisturizing, and wet wraps: Very dry skin is a common symptom of eczema, and moisturizing may help heal any damage from dryness and prevent flare-ups. It can also improve how well the skin absorbs medications.
  • Over-the-counter medicines: Some examples include lower-potency steroid creams, antihistamines, and pain relief medications.
  • Prescription medicines: These include stronger topical steroids and calcineurin inhibitors, injectable drugs called biologics, and oral drugs, such as immunosuppressants and steroids.
  • Alternative and complementary treatments: Relaxation techniques, mindfulness training, and acupressure may provide a whole-body approach to the treatment.
  • Phototherapy: This involves using different wavelengths of UV light to reduce inflammation and itchiness.

Learn more about natural remedies for eczema.

Eczema is a common inflammatory skin condition that can cause color and texture changes, dryness, and itchiness.

Topical steroids, such as steroid creams, can relieve the symptoms in various ways, including by reducing inflammation.

Use these products with caution, as improper use may cause adverse effects.

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