Safety of topical corticosteroids in atopic eczema: an umbrella review

BMJ Open. 2021 Jul 7;11(7):e046476. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-046476.


Objective: An umbrella review summarising all safety data from systematic reviews of topical corticosteroids (TCS) in adults and children with atopic eczema.

Methods: Embase, MEDLINE, PubMed, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews and the Centre of Evidence Based Dermatology map of eczema systematic reviews were searched until 7 November 2018 and Epistemonikos until 2 March 2021. Reviews were included if they assessed the safety of TCS in atopic eczema and searched >1 database using a reproducible search strategy. Review quality was assessed using version 2 of 'A MeaSurement Tool to Assess systematic Reviews' (AMSTAR 2 tool).

Results: 38 systematic reviews included, 34 low/critically low quality. Treatment and follow-up were usually short (2-4 weeks).

Key findings: TCS versus emollient/vehicle: No meta-analyses identified for skin-thinning. Two 2-week randomised controlled trials (RCTs) found no significant increased risk with very potent TCS (0/196 TCS vs 0/33 vehicle in children and 6/109 TCS vs 2/50 vehicle, age unknown). Biochemical adrenal suppression (cortisol) was 3.8% (95% CI 2.4% to 5.8%) in a meta-analysis of 11 uncontrolled observational studies (any potency TCS, 522 children). Effects reversed when treatment ceased.TCS versus topical calcineurin inhibitors: Meta-analysis showed higher relative risk of skin thinning with TCS (4.86, 95% CI 1.06 to 22.28, n=4128, four RCTs, including one 5-year RCT). Eight cases in 2068 participants, 7 using potent TCS. No evidence of growth suppression.Once daily versus more frequent TCS: No meta-analyses identified. No skin-thinning in one RCT (3 weeks potent TCS, n=94) or biochemical adrenal suppression in two RCTs (up to 2 weeks very potent/moderate TCS, n=129).TCS twice/week to prevent flares ('weekend therapy') versus vehicle: No meta-analyses identified. No evidence of skin thinning in five RCTs. One RCT found biochemical adrenal suppression (2/44 children, potent TCS).

Conclusions: W e found no evidence of harm when TCS were used intermittently 'as required' to treat flares or 'weekend therapy' to prevent flares. However, long-term safety data were limited.

Prospero registration number: CRD42018079409.

Keywords: adult dermatology; eczema; paediatric dermatology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / adverse effects
  • Adult
  • Calcineurin Inhibitors
  • Child
  • Dermatitis, Atopic* / drug therapy
  • Eczema* / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Calcineurin Inhibitors