Topical Corticosteroids

Drugs related to natural hormones that are applied directly to the skin to reduce inflammation

Common drugs

    Very potent corticosteroids

  • Clobetasol

  • Fluocinonide

  • Halcinonide

    Potent corticosteroids

  • Beclometasone

  • Betamethasone

  • Fluocinolone

  • Fluticasone

  • Mometasone

  • Triamcinolone

    Moderately potent corticosteroids

  • Alclometasone

    Mild corticosteroids

  • Hydrocortisone

Corticosteroids are chemically similar to the natural hormones produced by the adrenal glands. They are used topically as cream or ointment preparations to relieve skin inflammation and itching caused by conditions such as eczema, contact dermatitis, seborrhoeic dermatitis, and, less commonly, for psoriasis. If inflammation is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection of the skin, topical corticosteroids may be used in conjunction with an anti-infective preparation (see Preparations for skin infections and infestations).

When applied directly to the skin, corticosteroids are absorbed into the underlying layers of tissue, where they reduce inflammation and relieve itching. These drugs have complex effects on many body processes, including almost all aspects of the inflammatory process, and one of their effects is to reduce the production of prostaglandins, substances that play a key role in triggering inflammation.

How are they used?

Your doctor will prescribe a corticosteroid cream or ointment that is potent enough to relieve your symptoms while at the same time minimizing the risk of side effects. You should follow your doctor’s instructions on how often to apply the cream or ointment (usually once or twice a day) and make sure that you use the correct amount (see Applying ointments, creams, and gels). Some mild topical corticosteroid preparations are available over the counter.

What are the side effects?

Mild topical corticosteroid preparations used sparingly and for a short time do not usually cause side effects. However, prolonged use of these preparations can cause permanent changes to the skin. Most commonly, the treated skin becomes thin and easily damaged. If corticosteroids are applied to infected skin, the condition may worsen.

More potent topical corticosteroids used long-term may rarely cause more severe side effects, such as increased blood pressure and a susceptibility to bruising. If you are using potent topical corticosteroids, your doctor will review your condition regularly. Do not stop using corticosteroids without first consulting your doctor.


Do not use a topical corticosteroid on your face or on a baby’s skin except on the advice of a doctor.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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