The usual treatment consists of three parts:
- Avoiding irritants to the skin and other causes (triggers) wherever possible.
- Moisturizers (emollients) – used every day to help prevent inflammation developing.
- Steroid creams and ointments (topical steroids) – mainly used when inflammation flares up.
Treatment part 3 – steroid creams and ointments (topical steroids)
Topical steroids work by reducing inflammation in the skin. (Steroid medicines that reduce inflammation are sometimes called corticosteroids. They are very different to the anabolic steroids which are used by some bodybuilders and athletes.) Topical steroids are grouped into four categories depending on their strength – mild, moderately potent, potent and very potent. There are various brands and types in each category. For example, hydrocortisone cream 1% is a commonly used steroid cream and is classed as a mild topical steroid. The greater the strength (potency), the more effect it has on reducing inflammation but the greater the risk of side-effects with continued use.
Creams are usually best to treat moist or weeping areas of skin. Ointments are usually best to treat areas of skin which are dry or thickened. Lotions may be useful to treat hairy areas such as the scalp.
As a rule, a course of topical steroid is used when one or more patches of eczema flare up. You should use topical steroids until the flare-up has completely gone and then stop them. In many cases, a course of treatment for 7-14 days is enough to clear a flare-up of eczema. In some cases, a longer course is needed. Many people with atopic eczema require a course of topical steroids every now and then to clear a flare-up. The frequency of flare-ups and the number of times a course of topical steroids is needed can vary greatly from person to person.
It is common practice to use the lowest-strength topical steroid which clears the flare-up. If there is no improvement after 3-7 days, a stronger topical steroid is usually then prescribed. For severe flare-ups a stronger topical steroid may be prescribed from the outset. Sometimes two or more preparations of different strengths are used at the same time. For example, a mild steroid for the face and a stronger steroid for patches of eczema on the thicker skin of the arms or legs.
Short bursts of high-strength steroid as an alternative
For adults, a short course (usually three days) of a strong topical steroid may be an option to treat a mild-to-moderate flare-up of eczema. A strong topical steroid often works quicker than a mild one. (This is in contrast to the traditional method of using the lowest strength wherever possible. However, studies have shown that using a high strength for a short period can be more convenient and is thought to be safe.)
Short-duration treatment to prevent flare-ups (weekend therapy)
Some people have frequent flare-ups of eczema. For example, a flare-up may subside well with topical steroid therapy. But then, within a few weeks, a flare-up returns. In this situation, one option that might help is to apply steroid cream on the usual sites of flare-ups for two days every week. This is often called weekend therapy. This aims to prevent a flare-up from occurring. In the long run, it can mean that the total amount of topical steroid used is less than if each flare-up were treated as and when it occurred. You may wish to discuss this option with your doctor.
How do I apply topical steroids?
Topical steroids are usually applied once a day but this may be increased to twice a day if there is no improvement. Rub a small amount thinly and evenly just on to areas of skin which are inflamed. (This is different to moisturizers (emollients) which should be applied liberally all over.)
To work out how much you should use each dose: squeeze out some cream or ointment from the tube on to the end of an adult finger – from the tip of the finger to the first crease. This is called a fingertip unit. One fingertip unit is enough to treat an area of skin twice the size of the flat of an adult’s hand with the fingers together. Gently rub the cream or ointment into the skin until it has disappeared. Then wash your hands (unless your hands are the treated area).
Note: don’t forget you can use emollients as well when you are using a course of topical steroids.