Hydrocortisone cream is a topical corticosteroid used to treat mild inflammatory skin conditions, commonly called dermatitis . Hydrocortisone cream is available over the counter in different doses (such as 0.5% and 1%), as well as in prescription doses (2.5%) .
Hydrocortisone relieves swelling, itching , and redness caused by dermatitis. Corticosteroids are a class of steroid hormones closely related to cortisol, a natural hormone produced by the adrenal glands.
Hydrocortisone is also found in various antibacterial or antifungal medications, such as foot creams for athletes or ointments for diapers.
Common conditions that can be treated with hydrocortisone creams
Hydrocortisone cream is a suitable treatment for many allergic skin rashes, such as atopic dermatitis (atopic eczema) and allergic contact dermatitis (including poison ivy and poison oak). It is also good for treating insect bites. Hydrocortisone creams can also treat the following conditions:
- Irritant contact dermatitis (caused by contact with a chemical or physical irritant)
- Seborrheic dermatitis (a type that affects the scalp, face, ears, and trunk)
- Anal itching
- Itching of the external female genitalia
The choice and effectiveness of a hydrocortisone cream largely depends on the specific skin condition.
Conditions that cannot be cured with hydrocortisone creams
Hydrocortisone is not particularly helpful in treating hives (hives) because it is caused by histamines rather than inflammation of the skin.
Histamines are chemicals produced by the immune system to remove allergens (substances that cause allergies) from the body. Overreacting to this reaction can sometimes lead to a rash outbreak. In this case, an oral antihistamine may be the best treatment option, although a topical hydrocortisone cream may be prescribed to relieve local itching and swelling.
Other conditions for which hydrocortisone creams are not effective include:
- Hydrocortisone cannot be used to treat acne and can actually make the condition worse. It should also not be used to treat a skin infection or any damaged skin area, including blisters, boils, sores, or chancre sores.
- Although hydrocortisone cream can be used sparingly to treat a rash around the genitals, it should never be used in the vagina. Any medicine developed to treat hemorrhoids (such as Anusol-HC) should only be used to treat hemorrhoids, not by mouth.
- When hydrocortisone cream can be used to treat seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp, it does not actually cure dandruff. Dandruff is usually treated with medicated shampoos that contain salicylic acid, selenium sulfide, or zinc pyrithione.
- Hydrocortisone cream can make certain skin conditions worse, such as impetigo and rosacea . Talk to your doctor if you have any of these conditions.
Hydrocortisone cream can be used in children, but be careful, especially in young children. Talk to your pediatrician before using hydrocortisone cream for infants or toddlers to treat eczema or diaper rash. There may be alternative products that are milder and work just as well.
How to use
Hydrocortisone cream is usually applied to the affected skin area two to three times a day, but the prescription cream can be used less often. Apply the cream in a thin layer, rubbing until completely absorbed. Treatment can last from a few days to several weeks until the rash and itching are gone. Usage should generally not exceed four weeks.
Lower potency versions (eg 0.5% or 1%) can be applied to the face for shorter periods of time, however any area around the eyes should be strictly avoided. Wash your hands well after use.
If you are using a moisturizer with hydrocortisone cream, apply the moisturizer first and let it soak in for 10-15 minutes before using hydrocortisone.
Long-term use of topical steroids on the face, especially strong medications, should also be avoided as this can cause irreversible damage to the skin. Repeated application around the eyes or eyelids is known to cause glaucoma. Although side effects are rare, if the hydrocortisone product is used as directed, they can occur.
Side effects of long-term use of topical steroids include:
- Skin atrophy (thinning of the skin)
- Stretch marks
- Spider veins
Systemic side effects are also rare, but can be serious.
Stop taking your medications and ask your doctor if any of the following happen:
- Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
- Blurred vision or halos around lights
- Swelling in the face
- Deterioration of the skin condition.
Get the word of drug information
Hydrocortisone cream can be very effective in treating mild skin inflammation, but it should never be used as a panacea. Since it has worked well, for example, in treating rashes, don't assume that you can use it just as effectively for diaper rash or any other skin condition your family may have.
Always read the manufacturer's package insert to determine if this treatment is appropriate and how the product should be used. When in doubt, talk to your pharmacist or doctor.