Hydrocortisone for mild inflammatory skin conditions

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Use hydrocortisone once or twice a day. A course of treatment of up to seven days is usually sufficient. Do not use it for longer than seven days unless it has been prescribed for you by a doctor.

You only need to use a small amount of cream or ointment. Apply it thinly and massage it gently into the skin until it disappears.

Hydrocortisone must not be used by children under 10 years, or by women who are pregnant, unless it has been prescribed by a doctor.

Type of medicineA mild topical corticosteroid
Used forMild inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis; insect bites; nappy rash
Available asCream and ointment

Hydrocortisone is classed as a mild topical corticosteroid. Topical corticosteroids are also referred to as topical steroids. Topical steroids are used in addition to moisturisers (emollients) for treating inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis. A topical steroid can be used to relieve the symptoms when patches of eczema or dermatitis flare up. Hydrocortisone is also useful in reducing inflammation due insect bites and stings. A doctor may also prescribe hydrocortisone to treat nappy rash in a baby or infant.

Hydrocortisone is available on prescription. It can also be bought without a prescription for the treatment of mild inflammatory conditions such as allergic contact dermatitis and insect stings in adults and older children. Hydrocortisone is also an ingredient in a number of preparations which contain an antibacterial or antifungal agent. These preparations are for use when there is a skin infection also present, such as in athlete's foot.

Do not confuse hydrocortisone creams and ointments with a much more potent topical steroid preparation which contains an ingredient called 'hydrocortisone butyrate'. Hydrocortisone butyrate is a potent topical steroid prescribed for severe skin conditions.

To make sure this is the right treatment for you, before you start using hydrocortisone it is important that your doctor or pharmacist knows:

  • If you have any areas of infected skin.
  • If you have rosacea or acne.
  • If it is for a child under 10 years of age. This is because hydrocortisone should only be used in children on the recommendation of a doctor.
  • If you are pregnant or breast-feeding. This is because, while you are expecting or feeding a baby, you should only use medicines on the recommendation of a doctor.
  • If you have ever had an allergic reaction to a skin preparation.
  • Before you start using the preparation, read the manufacturer's printed information leaflet from inside the pack. It will give you more information about topical steroids and will provide you with a full list of the side-effects that you may experience from using them.
  • Apply a small amount to the areas of skin which are inflamed. Then gently rub it into the skin until it has disappeared. Do not use it on areas of broken skin or on open sores. Unless you have been supplied with a preparation which also contains an anti-infective agent (such as miconazole or clotrimazole), do not use it on any areas of infected skin.
  • Apply the cream/ointment once or twice a day. It must not be applied more often than twice a day, and once a day is often sufficient.
  • If you are using more than one topical corticosteroid, make sure you know when and where to use each one. If you are unsure, check with your doctor or ask your pharmacist for further advice.
  • After you have applied hydrocortisone, remember to wash your hands (unless your hands are the treated area).
  • Children are susceptible to side-effects from topical steroids. The main concern is for children who need frequent courses, as it can have an effect on their growth and this may need to be monitored. If your child has been prescribed hydrocortisone, follow the directions you have been given very carefully, and do not use it for longer than you have been told to. As a general rule, it should not be used for more than one week in children. It is not suitable for children under 10 years of age unless it has been prescribed by a doctor.
  • If you are using a moisturiser along with hydrocortisone, apply the moisturiser first. Then wait 10-15 minutes before applying hydrocortisone. This allows time for the moisturiser to be absorbed before the topical corticosteroid is applied. If hydrocortisone has been prescribed for nappy rash and you are also using a barrier cream, apply the hydrocortisone first and the barrier cream afterwards.
  • Do not use the cream/ointment on your face unless it has been prescribed by a doctor for this reason. If so, be careful not to get any near your eyes and do not use it for a longer period of time than you have been advised.
  • Unless advised to do so by your doctor, do not apply a bandage or dressing to the area being treated, as this will increase absorption of the steroid through your skin and increase the risk of side-effects.
  • Your doctor or pharmacist will tell you how long to use the preparation for. If you have bought the hydrocortisone from a retail outlet, you must not use it for more than one week. If your symptoms have not improved after this time (or if they get worse), you should speak with a doctor for advice. Hydrocortisone should not be used for long periods of time or on large areas of the body, especially in children.
  • If you have eczema or dermatitis, continue to use a moisturiser every day after you finish using hydrocortisone. This will help to prevent a further flare-up.

Short courses (of less than four weeks) of hydrocortisone are usually safe and do not cause any problems. If used for long periods, topical steroids can thin your skin, or you may develop permanent stretchmarks, allergic contact dermatitis, acne, rosacea, and hair growth at the site of application. Although such side-effects from a mild topical steroid like hydrocortisone occur only rarely, you can reduce the risk further by applying the preparation thinly, no more than twice a day, and to the affected areas only.

  • Keep all medicines out of the reach and sight of children.
  • Store in a cool, dry place, away from direct heat and light.

Make sure that the person supplying this medicine knows about any other medicines that you are taking or using. This includes medicines you buy and herbal and homeopathic medicines.

Before using this medicine tell your doctor if you have ever had an allergic reaction after taking or using any medicine.

Never use more than the prescribed dose. If you suspect that someone has swallowed some of the medicine by accident, contact the accident and emergency department of your local hospital for advice.

If you are having an operation or dental treatment, tell the person carrying out the treatment which medicines you are taking or using.

If you buy any medicines check with a pharmacist that they are safe to take with your other medicines.

This medicine is for you. Never give it to other people even if their condition appears to be the same as yours.

Do not keep out-of-date or unwanted medicines. Take them to your local pharmacy which will dispose of them for you.

If you have any questions about this medicine ask your pharmacist.

Further reading & references

  • British National Formulary; 68th Edition (Sep 2014) British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, London

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Helen Allen
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Helen Huins
Document ID:
3478 (v26)
Last Checked:
24/02/2015
Next Review:
23/02/2018
The Information Standard - certified member

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