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Eczema Treatment: Understanding Over-the-Counter Options

Posted on August 12, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D.
Article written by
Amy Isler, RN

Many effective treatment options and remedies are available to help manage flare-ups and reduce symptoms of eczema. Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is a skin condition that causes itchiness, rash, and dry scaly skin. The condition is typically caused by an environmental or food allergen that triggers the immune system to produce inflammation, resulting in the associated symptoms.

This article covers over-the-counter (OTC) treatment options for mild eczema, as well as options for those who need a stronger prescription treatment from a dermatologist or medical professional.

Over-the-Counter Eczema Treatment Options

OTC medications refer to medications that are sold at pharmacies and stores without the need for a prescription from a doctor or dermatologist.

OTC medications that help treat eczema are available in both topical and oral forms. These treatments work on the skin to reduce itching, clear up discoloration, provide moisture to the skin, and decrease inflammation. OTC medications are also usually offered in both brand-name products and their less-expensive generic forms.

Topical Steroids

Topical steroids are highly effective in treating and clearing up eczema symptoms. Low-potency topical steroids are available over the counter, whereas stronger, more potent ointments and creams are available only by prescription. The most common types of OTC topical medication contain hydrocortisone 1 percent or 2.5 percent. Hydrocortisone products are safe to use on all parts of the body, including the face.

Hydrocortisone is available as both a cream and an ointment in brand-name and generic forms. Hydrocortisone can be used more frequently than high-potency steroids, which shouldn't be used for longer than two weeks.

Common brand-name hydrocortisone products include:

Hydrocortisone has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating eczema. It should only be applied to the affected area and used according to label directions.

Oral Medications

Oral medications are also available to help reduce allergy symptoms and relieve itch.

Antihistamines

Oral antihistamines work to control allergies and reduce inflammation and itchiness. Some of these medications may be sedating and will make you drowsy. Medications that increase drowsiness can help with sleep, but they may also interfere with your daily activities if you take the medications during the day.

Common OTC antihistamines include:

  • Allegra (fexofenadine)
  • Benadryl (diphenhydramine), which is the most sedating on the list
  • Claritin (loratadine)
  • Xyzal (levocetirizine)
  • Zyrtec (cetirizine)

Pain Relievers

OTC pain relievers include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as:

  • Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen)
  • Aleve (naproxen)
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)

These medications can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain caused by eczema symptoms.

Shampoos

Shampoos are available to help treat eczema on the scalp, called seborrheic dermatitis or more simply, dandruff.

OTC shampoos containing active ingredients such as ketoconazole, coal tar, selenium sulfide, and zinc pyrithione work to combat symptoms of scalp eczema.

Read more about the best shampoos for eczema.

Moisturizer and Lotions

If you are living with eczema, it is important to keep your body moisturized and hydrated to prevent itching and to protect the skin barrier.

Applying a fragrance-free, dye-free moisturizer or lotion while your skin is still wet after bathing can help trap in moisture and prevent dryness, itchy skin, and other symptoms of eczema. Thicker creams and ointments will be more emollient than thinner lotions. Colloidal oatmeal and ceramides are common ingredients in moisturizers designed for eczema.

Read more about choosing the best moisturizers for eczema.

Possible Risks Associated With OTC Medications

One MyEczemaTeam member shared their success with OTC medications, “For many people, over-the-counter remedies are more beneficial than prescription meds. I’m not discouraging prescription options for those that need them, but some of them pose side effects.” But OTC products are not without their risks, too.

It is always important to follow the label’s instructions when taking any type of OTC medication. Using them off-label, underdosing, or overdosing can be both dangerous and lead to harmful side effects in some people.

Certain OTC medications can interact with other medications you may be taking. You should always consult your doctor before applying topical hydrocortisone or taking antihistamines, pain relievers, or other medicated treatments.

Another MyEczemaTeam member shared their caution about using OTC medications: “I have to watch what medications I take because so many over-the-counter medications work against the medications I take now for epilepsy.”

Potential drug interactions aside, possible side effects of OTC topical steroids include:

  • Cracked skin
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Acne
  • Change in the color of the skin

When OTC Medications Don’t Relieve Symptoms

For severe cases of eczema, OTC medications might not work to clear up symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

If symptoms are not going away with OTC treatment, it is important to consult your physician or dermatologist. Medical professionals can prescribe stronger medication that is not available over-the-counter to help manage eczema.

These more potent prescription medications may include:

Your doctor may also prescribe a topical steroid cream or a barrier restoration cream.

Connect With Others Who Understand

MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones. More than 38,000 people with eczema gather to share advice and talk about their own experiences living with the skin condition.

Do you use OTC medications to treat your eczema symptoms? Did they help? Share your experience in the comments below or on MyEczemaTeam. Your story may help others.

Kevin Berman, M.D., Ph.D. is a dermatologist at the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Disease, Atlanta, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Amy Isler, RN is a registered nurse with over six years of experience as a credentialed school nurse. Learn more about her here.

A MyEczemaTeam Member said:

Same with me

posted 3 days ago

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