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Eczema health centre

Steroid creams and ointments

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Introduction

This information is for people who have eczema. It tells you about steroid creams and ointments, which are used to treat eczema. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Do they work?

Yes. If you rub a cream or ointment that contains a steroid into your, or your child's, skin, there is a strong chance that it will reduce the itching and inflammation caused by eczema. Steroid creams work for nearly everyone who uses them.

Steroids used to treat eczema are called corticosteroids and are not the same as anabolic steroids that help build muscle. You might have read about athletes and bodybuilders sometimes misusing anabolic steroids. Those drugs are usually given as injections, and they can cause very harmful side effects. The steroids used to treat eczema are very different. Also, because they are applied to the skin, your body only absorbs a tiny amount.

What are they?

Steroids are chemicals produced by our own bodies. Pharmacists can make them in a laboratory as well. They do a lot of different jobs in the body. One kind of steroid can reduce swelling and itching, and it's used as a topical medicine for inflamed skin. [4] 'Topical' means you put it on the skin.

Topical steroids are mixed into creams or ointments that you can gently rub into patches of eczema that are red and itchy. Ointments, which are quite greasy, are best when the eczema is very dry, and creams or lotions are good when the eczema is weeping. [24] [19]

Topical steroids come in four different strengths: mild, medium, strong and very strong. [4] [25]

You usually need to use this kind of medicine once or twice a day. [24] After a bath is a good time to put it on, when your skin is full of water and the medicine can get into the skin more easily. [4]

Using a strong topical steroid for a long time is more likely to give you side effects than using it for just a short time. [4] How strong the medicine needs to be and how long you need to use it will depend on how severe your eczema is, where it is, and the side effects you might get.

During a flare-up, when the eczema can get very bad, your doctor may want you to use a strong cream or ointment for a short period and then switch to a weaker one. This gets the flare-up under control quickly. [4] [25]

Many different steroid ointments, creams and lotions are used for eczema. Some of the common ones are listed here (with some brand names):

Steroid typeBrand namesStrengthAvailable over the counter?
hydrocortisone 0.5% or 1.0%Dioderm, Efcortelan, Hc45, LanacortMildSome brands of hydrocortisone are available over the counter, but only for children over 10
clobetasone butyrate 0.05%EumovateMediumYes, for adults and children over 12
betamethasone valerate 0.1%BetnovateStrongNo
clobetasol propionateDermovateVery strongNo

If your eczema is fairly mild, you may wish to buy one of the steroid creams available over the counter. But, bear in mind that steroid creams can make certain skin conditions worse, and should not be used on some parts of the body. If you are not sure whether your, or your child's, skin condition is eczema, it is best to ask the pharmacist's advice or see your GP before using any steroid cream.

The pharmacist or their assistant will probably ask you some questions about how you plan to use the steroid creams you wish to buy.

Last Updated: November 01, 2010
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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