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Topical Steroid Withdrawal: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

by | Feb 6, 2024 | Blog

a person applying cream on the hand

Key Takeaways


  • Early Recognition and Action: Identifying TSW symptoms promptly and seeking professional diagnosis are crucial steps toward effective management and recovery.

  • Professional Guidance is Essential: Consulting healthcare professionals is vital for obtaining an accurate diagnosis, understanding your condition, and developing a personalized treatment plan.

  • Responsible Steroid Use: Adhering to prescribed guidelines for topical steroid use, including proper application and cautious tapering, can help prevent the onset of TSW.

  • Personalized Care Approaches: Each individual’s experience with TSW is unique, requiring customized treatment strategies that address specific symptoms and overall health.

Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) is a significant concern for individuals who use topical steroids to manage various skin conditions. Over time, the prolonged use of these medications can lead to TSW, resulting in a range of distressing symptoms such as redness, itching, and skin sensitivity.


What is Topical Steroid Withdrawal?

Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) is a condition that occurs when a person stops using topical steroids, which are medications applied to the skin to reduce inflammation and itching. TSW is a complex and often misunderstood condition that can cause a wide range of symptoms, including skin redness, itching, burning, and blistering.[1]

Topical steroids are commonly used to treat various skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. However, long-term use of topical steroids can lead to TSW, which can be debilitating and difficult to manage.


Recognizing the Symptoms of Topical Steroid Withdrawal

Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) presents a spectrum of symptoms that can differ in intensity and how long they last. These symptoms fall into several categories:


Skin Symptoms: These are often the most visible signs of TSW and can include:

    • Redness and irritation in various areas of the body.
    • Itching that ranges from mild to severe.
    • Burning or stinging sensations on the skin.
    • Dry, flaky, or scaly skin that may crack or fissure.
    • In more severe instances, the appearance of blisters, oozing, and crusting.

Systemic Symptoms: These affect the body as a whole and may include:

    • Fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell.
    • Fever and chills as the body reacts to the withdrawal process.
    • Body aches, highlighting the systemic impact of TSW.
    • Increased susceptibility to infections due to compromised skin integrity.

Psychological Symptoms: The physical challenges of TSW can also impact mental health, leading to:

    • Anxiety and depression, stemming from the distress and discomfort caused by skin symptoms and their impact on daily life.
    • Insomnia, often due to itchiness, pain, or stress related to TSW. [2]


Causes Behind Topical Steroid Withdrawal

Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW), also known as Red Skin Syndrome, emerges mainly from the overuse or incorrect use of topical steroid creams and ointments. These medications, designed to alleviate skin inflammation and itchiness, can lead to adverse effects if not used appropriately.[3]


Overuse and Misuse of Topical Steroids

  • Tachyphylaxis: A key issue with prolonged steroid use is tachyphylaxis, a phenomenon where the skin becomes less responsive to the medication over time. This can tempt individuals to use higher doses or more potent steroids, escalating the risk of dependency and withdrawal symptoms.
  • Dependency: With continuous use, the skin may become reliant on steroids to maintain its condition, creating a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
  • Rebound Effect: Discontinuing the steroids can lead to a rebound effect, manifesting as severe skin irritation, redness, and other discomforts. The intensity and duration of these symptoms can vary significantly among individuals.


Contributing Factors

  • Potency and Duration: The risk of developing TSW increases with the use of high-potency steroids, extensive application periods, and treatment of large body areas.
  • Sensitive Areas: Applying steroids to sensitive skin regions, such as the face or groin, heightens the likelihood of TSW.
  • Occlusive Dressings: Prolonged use of occlusive dressings, which cover the skin and may be used to increase a medication’s effectiveness, can also contribute to the condition.
  • Pre-existing Skin Conditions: Individuals with underlying skin issues, especially eczema, are more susceptible to experiencing TSW upon stopping topical steroids.

Stages of Topical Steroid Withdrawal

Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) can be divided into different stages, each with its own set of symptoms and challenges. The stages of TSW can vary in duration and severity, depending on several factors, including the duration and potency of topical steroid use, the area of the body affected, and the individual’s immune response.[4]

Stage Characteristics Duration
1. Erythema Stage Redness and inflammation of the skin, warmth, and itchiness. Several days to weeks
2. Edema Stage Swelling, fluid accumulation, tight and painful skin, blister development. Several weeks to months
3. Dryness and Flaking Stage Dry, flaky, and scaly skin, cracks, fissures, and potential for infection. Several months to years
4. Healing Stage Gradual symptom improvement, persistent dryness and flakiness, reduced redness and inflammation. Several months to years

Overlapping Stages

It’s important to recognize that these stages can overlap, and individuals may experience a mix of symptoms or progress through stages at varying rates. Some might not distinctly experience each stage, while others may find certain stages more pronounced.


Treatment Options for Topical Steroid Withdrawal

Treatment for Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) can be challenging, as the condition is complex and often misunderstood. However, there are various treatment strategies that can help manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life for individuals with TSW.

Medical Treatment:

  • Topical Corticosteroids: In some cases, a healthcare professional may prescribe a low-potency topical corticosteroid to help manage the symptoms of TSW. However, this should be done under the guidance of a healthcare professional, as prolonged use of topical steroids can worsen TSW.
  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines can help manage itching and inflammation associated with TSW. However, they may not be effective for all individuals and should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional.[5]
  • Moisturizers: Moisturizers can help soothe the skin and reduce dryness and flakiness associated with TSW. However, it is essential to choose a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturizer that does not contain any potential irritants.

Complication of Topical Steroid Withdrawal: Red Skin Syndrome

Red Skin Syndrome (RSS) stands out from general Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) in several important ways:

  1. Stronger Symptoms: RSS symptoms are more severe, with intense skin redness spreading beyond the area where steroids were used, and a deep burning feeling.
  2. Longer Duration: RSS tends to last longer than typical TSW, showing the skin’s deep reliance on steroids and making recovery more challenging.
  3. Harder to Treat: Managing RSS can be complex because of its stubborn symptoms. It often needs a careful approach to help soothe the skin and improve the person’s quality of life.
  4. Emotional Effects: RSS doesn’t just affect the skin; it can also lead to significant stress, anxiety, and trouble sleeping, making it tough on mental health.
  5. Risk of Being Misunderstood: Because RSS looks like other skin issues and is so severe, it’s often misdiagnosed, making it hard to know how many people really have it.[6]


  1. Sheary B. Steroid Withdrawal Effects Following Long-term Topical Corticosteroid Use. Dermatitis. 2018;29(4):213-218. doi:
  2. Ghosh A, Sengupta S, Arijit Coondoo, Amlan Kusum Jana. Topical corticosteroid addiction and phobia. Indian Journal of Dermatology. 2014;59(5):465-465. doi:
  3. Binder S. Loss of reactivity in intravitreal anti-VEGF therapy: tachyphylaxis or tolerance? British Journal of Ophthalmology. 2011;96(1):1-2. doi:
  4. Hajar T, Leshem YA, Hanifin JM, et al. A systematic review of topical corticosteroid withdrawal (“steroid addiction”) in patients with atopic dermatitis and other dermatoses. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2015;72(3):541-549.e2. doi:
  5. Min Seok Hur, Yong Beom Choe, Kyu Joong Ahn, Yang Won Lee. Synergistic Effect of H1-Antihistamines on Topical Corticosteroids for Pruritus in Atopic Dermatitis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Annals of Dermatology. 2019;31(4):420-420. doi:
  6. Topical corticosteroid withdrawal (“steroid addiction”): an update of a systematic review. Journal of Dermatological Treatment. Published 2018. Accessed January 30, 2024.


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