Using Hydrocortisone Cream for Skin Rashes

Hydrocortisone cream is a topical steroid used to treat mild inflammatory skin conditions, commonly referred to as dermatitis.

Hydrocortisone cream is available over the counter in different strengths, such as 0.5% and 1.0%. It is also available by prescription, at a strength of 2.5%.

Hydrocortisone is a corticosteroid, similar to a hormone produced naturally in your adrenal glands. It works by easing the swelling, itching, and redness caused by dermatitis.

Hydrocortisone is also an ingredient used in a number of antibacterial or antifungal preparations, such as in athlete's foot creams and diaper ointments.

This article explains the conditions that hydrocortisone cream can treat, those it cannot, how to use the cream, and the possible side effects.

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Conditions Hydrocortisone Creams Can Treat

Hydrocortisone cream may be your go-to treatment for insect bites or stings. It is also a smart way to treat many allergic skin rashes, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema) and allergic contact dermatitis (including poison ivy and poison oak).

Hydrocortisone cream can also relieve:

  • Anal itching
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Irritant contact dermatitis, which is caused by contact with a chemical or physical irritant
  • Itching of the outer female genitals
  • Psoriasis
  • Seborrheic dermatitis, which affects the scalp, face, ears, and torso (and is also known as dandruff)

Conditions Hydrocortisone Creams Cannot Treat

Hydrocortisone is not useful as a treatment for hives (urticaria). This is because hives are caused by histamines, not skin inflammation.

Histamines are chemicals produced by the immune system in response to allergens, which are allergy-causing substances. An overreaction can sometimes cause a rash.

In this case, an oral antihistamine may be the best treatment choice. At the same time, hydrocortisone cream may be prescribed to relieve itchiness and swelling.

Hydrocortisone cream has its limits. Don't count on it to relieve:

  • Acne. In fact, the cream could make it worse.
  • Broken skin, including blisters, boils, ulcers, or chancre sores.
  • Itching in the vagina. The cream may be used, sparingly, to treat a rash around the genitals, but never in them.
  • Rosacea and impetigo. The cream can upset both conditions.

The point should be clear: Using hydrocortisone cream on these problems would be a little like using a shop vac on a small kitchen fire. It's a fine tool but the wrong one for the job.

You may use hydrocortisone cream on children. But be careful, especially with infants and toddlers. Speak with your pediatrician before using hydrocortisone cream to treat eczema or diaper rash. Other products may be gentler and work just as well on little ones.

How to Use

Hydrocortisone cream is typically applied to the affected area two or three times per day. A prescription cream may be used less often.

Apply the cream thinly, rubbing it in until fully absorbed.

A treatment plan can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, or until the rash and itchiness have resolved. A full treatment should last no longer than four weeks.

Lower-potency versions of the cream (such as 0.5%) can be applied to your face for shorter periods of time. But keep the cream away from your eyes. You could risk an irritation.

For the same reason, wash your hands thoroughly after each use.

It's a good idea to use a moisturizer along with hydrocortisone cream. Apply the moisturizer first to prepare your skin. Let it absorb for 10 to 15 minutes. Then apply the hydrocortisone.

Side Effects

It's a good idea to avoid long-term use of any topical steroid on your face, particularly high-potency types. You risk irritating your skin. In the worst cases, you could even trigger irreversible skin damage.

Using topical steroids for longer than recommended could cause:

  • Bruising
  • Discoloration
  • Skin atrophy (thinning of the skin)
  • Stretch marks
  • Spider veins

Stop the medication and contact your healthcare provider if any of these events occur while you are using hydrocortisone cream:

Summary

Hydrocortisone cream is good at treating mild inflammatory skin conditions. Be sure you know what these conditions include. In general, the cream should not be used on skin that is broken. Use it wisely and according to the instructions to avoid side effects.

A Word From Verywell

Hydrocortisone cream can be very effective at treating mild skin inflammation. But it should never be used as a cure-all. Just because it cleared up a leg rash, for example, it would be a mistake to presume that it can be used on diaper rash.

Always read the manufacturer's insert for instructions on how to use the product. And if you have questions, speak with a pharmacist or your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What types of rashes are treated with topical steroids?

    Topical steroids like hydrocortisone cream are used to treat a number of skin conditions including:

    • Atopic dermatitis
    • Bee stings
    • Contact dermatitis
    • Eczema
    • Female genital itching not due to a yeast infection
    • Hemorrhoids and anal itching
    • Insect bites
    • Poison ivy and poison oak
    • Psoriasis
    • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • What kind of rash gets worse with steroid cream?

    A fungal infection will worsen from a steroid cream. Common fungal rashes include:

    • Athlete's foot
    • Jock itch
    • Ringworm
    • Yeast infection

    Ringworm, jock itch, and athlete’s foot are caused by a fungus known as tinea. Yeast infections are caused by a fungus known as candida. Some diaper rashes are also caused by yeast.

    Steroid creams should not be used on fungal infections because the medication feeds the fungus, causing it to spread and worsen.

  • Can I use hydrocortisone cream on my face?

    No, you should not put hydrocortisone cream on your face except under the direction of your healthcare provider. Hydrocortisone and other steroids can irritate facial skin and can potentially lead to irreversible skin damage. Never put hydrocortisone on acne.  

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merck Manual Professional Version. Principles of topical dermatologic therapy.

  2. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Treatment of skin disorders.

  3. Merck Manual Professional Version. Urticaria.

  4. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Genital itching.

  5. Coondoo, A. Phiske, M, Verma, S, Lahiri, K. Side-effects of topical steroids: A long overdue revisit. Indian Dermatol Online. 2014;Oct.-Dec.:416-425. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.142483.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Steroid creams can make ringworm worse.