There is little evidence as to what percentage of a topical corticosteroid dose is absorbed systemically. Studies investigating systemic effects do not measure how much of the corticosteroid is in the blood, but instead focus on measuring cortisol as a marker of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression. After a few weeks’ treatment with potent or very potent topical corticosteroids temporary HPA axis suppression does occur. However, this resolves upon cessation of the topical corticosteroid, without the need for dose tapering. 5, 19 HPA axis suppression is more marked when topical corticosteroids are applied under occlusion, . with wet wraps.
Long term use of topical corticosteroids can induce tachyphylaxis (tolerance to the vasoconstrictive action of topical corticosteroids). Adverse effects are uncommon when using mild to potent corticosteroids for less than three months, except when used on the face and neck, in intertriginous areas (skin folds), or under occlusion. However, very potent corticosteroids should not be used continuously for longer than three weeks. 2 If longer use of very potent corticosteroids is required, they should be gradually tapered to avoid rebound symptoms and then stopped for a period of at least one week after which treatment can be resumed. 2
The most common side effect of topical corticosteroid use is skin atrophy. All topical steroids can induce atrophy, but higher potency steroids, occlusion, thinner skin, and older patient age increase the risk. The face, the backs of the hands, and intertriginous areas are particularly susceptible. Resolution often occurs after discontinuing use of these agents, but it may take months. Concurrent use of topical tretinoin (Retin-A) % may reduce the incidence of atrophy from chronic steroid applications. 30 Other side effects from topical steroids include permanent dermal atrophy, telangiectasia, and striae.