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Steroid creams: Treatment for eczema and other conditions

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

These are creams, ointments and lotions that contain steroids.  Topical steroids work by reducing inflammation in the skin.  They come in varying potencies (strengths). We will go through when you will use a steroid cream and its side effects.

Doctor’s advice

Uses of steroid creams

Steroid creams are used for a range of inflammatory skin conditions. We will run through the most common uses:

Eczema (Dermatitis)

Steroid creams are frequently prescribed to manage the inflammation, redness, and itching associated with eczema, including, but not limited to dyshidrotic eczema, baby eczema. They help to alleviate symptoms during flare-ups and are often used in combination with emollients to maintain skin hydration.


Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition characterized by the rapid buildup of skin cells, leading to red, scaly patches. Steroid creams can be applied to reduce inflammation and relieve itching in localized areas affected by psoriasis.

Contact Dermatitis

Whether caused by irritants or allergens, contact dermatitis results in skin inflammation. Topical corticosteroids can help alleviate the symptoms by reducing inflammation and soothing the affected skin.

Allergic Reactions

Steroid creams are sometimes used to manage skin reactions caused by allergies, such as hives (urticaria). They can help reduce itching and inflammation associated with allergic skin conditions.

Insect Bites or Stings

Steroid creams may be recommended to reduce swelling and itching in localized reactions to insect bites or stings. However, they must be used cautiously and only as directed by a healthcare professional.

Pruritus (Itching)

Steroid creams can be prescribed to relieve severe itching associated with various skin conditions, helping to improve the overall comfort of individuals with these symptoms.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition, which affects areas rich in oil glands, such as the scalp and face, can be managed with steroid creams to reduce inflammation and control symptoms.

Steroid cream side effects

Main side effects include thinning of the skin if used for prolonged periods. Some people can even experience stretch marks, bruising, enlarged blood vessels, localized increased hair thickness and length. If a steroid cream is used on a skin condition that doesn’t warrant use of a steroid, it can aggravate the skin condition.

How are they applied?

Typically, topical steroids can be prescribed for 7-14 days, applied thinly to the skin twice a day before taking a break and assessing the response. They are best applied a few minutes after an emollient.

Suppose the rash hasn't cleared after 7-14 days, or your skin becomes broken or blistered. In that case, it is advised to book an appointment with your doctor to review the effectiveness of the medications and see if any alternatives can be added or tried.

What can be bought over the counter

The only ones that can be bought over the counter are hydrocortisone 0.5% and 1%. All other ones have to be prescribed by a health care professional.

Steroid ladder

Healthcare professionals use a steroid ladder for prescribing creams to patients, often starting with the mildest steroid before moving on to the next one up the ladder. Steroids are commonly classed as mild, moderate, potent, and very potent. Depending on the severity of your skin condition, your doctor may decide to start higher than the lowest level of steroid potency.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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