Corticosteroids are used for a variety of reasons, for instance, to ease painful skin conditions or suppress symptoms of allergy. As they are hormones, they can have side effects. The side effects depend on the type of steroid you use, and its concentration.
Topically applied creams are the least likely to cause side effects. The mildest type is hydrocortisone cream (0.5-2.5 percent) which is used for conditions like eczema, insect bites and allergic rashes.
Some very mild brands can be bought over the counter. The stronger concentrations have to be prescribed by a doctor.
The strongest type of steroid cream is clobetasol propionate (Temovate, Dermol or Dermovate depending on where you live) and this is 600 times stronger than hydrocortisone cream. Because of its very high potency, it is not recommended for use in infancy.
Side effects of topical steroids depend on where you put the cream. Different parts of the body absorb different amounts of steroid so the higher amount absorbed, the higher the likelihood of adverse reactions. For instance, if you put it on the palms of your hands, you will only absorb around 0.1 percent steroid, but if you put it on your genitals, you will absorb around 30 percent.
Side effects include:
• Easy bruising
• Skin thinning (usually only a problem if you use too much medication longer than four weeks)
• Stretch marks
• Increased likelihood of skin infections
• Allergy to the steroid cream
• If very strong steroid is used, e.g., clobetasol propionate, there is a risk of Cushing’s syndrome (weight gain, swelling of the legs, weak bones, high blood pressure, kidney stones, male infertility and erectile dysfunction, irregular periods or absent periods, diabetes and depression). This syndrome is caused by raised cortisol in the blood.
Inhaled corticosteroids are used to treat conditions like asthma. Usually these have few or no side effects if you use as directed and on a temporary basis. If you use them long-term, you may get oral thrush (candida infection in your mouth).