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How safe is Hydrocortisone Cream?

July 2013

Applying hydrocortisone creamMany people are prescribed hydrocortisone creams. They come under a range of different brand names and are recommended for skin problems such as eczema, dermatitis and other skin complaints such as reactions to plants or insect bites, or various skin allergies.

Most hydrocortisone creams are based around corticosteroids - and this is where confusion can start. See the word steroid and it is easy to think of illegal drugs in sports to enhance performance. In fact, while corticosteroids are often called steroids, they are very different from another group of steroids, the anabolic steroids, which are so famous because of their abuse by some athletes and body builders.

Corticosteroid medicines are derivatives of the natural corticosteroid hormones that are produced by the adrenal glands. Hydrocortisone cream is a mild topical corticosteroid.

The main use of corticosteroid medication is that it can help to reduce inflammation. Inflammation of the skin can occur due to an allergy or irritation which causes the release of various substances important in the immune system. These substances cause blood vessels to widen and this results in the irritated area becoming red and possibly swollen, itchy and sore.

Hydrocortisone cream applied to the area works inside the cells to decrease the release of the inflammatory substances which subsequently reduced the swelling, redness and itchiness.

They are particularly useful for eczema because by controlling the irritation, there is less risk of scratching which can result in infection getting in.

Corticosteroid creams can come in a variety of strengths and to begin with a mild cream is usually prescribed. Some creams will also contain antibiotics, or even urea or salicylic acid to help the steroids be absorbed into the skin. For instance, two commonly prescribed hydrocortisone creams are Dermacort and Fucidin H. Dermacort cream contained just 0.1% of hydrocortisone which classes it as mild. Fucidin H cream contains 1% of hydrocortisone acetate which is stronger although still quite mild and it also contains fusidic acid as an antibiotic. There are many brands of hydrocortisone creams which can go right up to potent in strength.

When anyone is first prescribed a hydrocortisone cream, they can be nervous about the idea of using a topical steroid. Generally, side effects are few when used as recommended.

In the unlikely event that a side-effect does occur, it is likely to be a slight thinning of the skin where the cream has been applied. There can be a temporary loss of pigmentation in the treated area, but occasionally people have been known to have an allergic reaction to the cream.

However, it is very important to use hydrocortisone creams exactly as instructed by the chemist or doctor. If it is used on large areas of skin for prolonged periods, the potent steroids can be absorbed into the bloodstream and affect other areas of the body. It could even suppress the body’s natural product of steroid, which can lead to more serious problems.

But really it is common sense to use medication only as instructed. You can today buy hydrocortisone creams over the counter, but it is always best to talk to the pharmacist beforehand to ensure you are doing the right thing.


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