Topical corticosteroids were introduced into medicine about 50 years ago. They represent a significant milestone in dermatologic therapy. Despite encouragement to report observed adverse drug reactions, the clinical practice of reporting is poor and incomplete. Likewise, adverse effects and safety of topical corticosteroids are neglected in the medical literature. The authors provide an updated review of their adverse-effect profile. Children are more prone to the development of systemic reactions to topically applied medication because of their higher ratio of total body surface area to body weight. Cutaneous adverse effects occur regularly with prolonged treatment and are dependent on the chemical nature of the drug, the vehicle, and the location of its application. The most frequent adverse effects include atrophy, striae, rosacea, perioral dermatitis, acne, and purpura. Those that occur with lower frequency include hypertrichosis, pigmentation alterations, delayed wound healing, and exacerbation of skin infections. Of particular interest is the rate of contact sensitization against corticosteroids, which is considerably higher than generally believed. Systemic reactions such as hyperglycemia, glaucoma, and adrenal insufficiency have also been reported to follow topical application. The authors provide an updated review of local and systemic adverse effects upon administration of topical corticosteroids, including the latest FDA report on the safety of such steroids in children.
Learning objective: At the completion of this learning activity, participants should be familiar with topical corticosteroids and their proper use.