Topical Corticosteroid Withdrawal – Q&A with Prof Hugo

In March 2015, the National Eczema Association (NEA, in US) published a study on steroid addiction in patients with atopic dermatitis. This was by members of its task force, who looked into the evidence regarding steroid withdrawal as many eczema sufferers were asking about the steroid addiction syndrome, along with many cautioning and enquiring on this online and over social media. The use of steroid creams remains a common treatment option, and the phobia of steroids has also stopped eczema sufferers, including children, from receiving treatment. The questions we are exploring with Professor Hugo centered on:

  1. What is steroid addiction?
  2. What is steroid withdrawal and its symptoms?
  3. Is steroid addiction/ withdrawal common?
  4. What are the treatment options for eczema?

Professor Hugo is no stranger to this blog – He has previously helped in Friday Doctor Q&A in 2012 and is my co-author for our book “Living with Eczema – Mom Asks, Doc Answers”. Professor Hugo van Bever is the Professor in Paediatrics (MD, PhD) at the National University Singapore, and also the Senior Consultant in its Division of Paediatric Allergy, Immunology & Rheumatology.

The questions are loosely structured based on the paper published by the National Eczema Association, to address the above questions that are surely on the minds of many parents with eczema children.

Topical corticosteroid withdrawal

What is Steroid Addiction?

MarcieMom: Steroid addiction is used broadly to refer to eczema sufferers whose skin are “addicted” to the topical corticosteroids, and therefore, when they stop applying the steroid creams, they experience steroid withdrawal and its adverse symptoms.

MarcieMom: I looked up the meaning of addiction online and found a broader definition by MedicineNet.com that defines addiction as

“An uncontrollable craving, seeking, and use of a substance such as alcohol or another drug. Dependence is such an issue with addiction that stopping is very difficult and causes severe physical and mental reactions.”

Medical definitions of addiction linked addiction to a brain disease, rather than a skin disease. Is it even possible for the skin to crave topical corticosteroids and be dependent on it to the extent that stopping is difficult?

Professor Hugo: I disagree with the word “addiction”, as the situation here doesn’t refer to a mental state (addiction always refers to a mental state). As for the possibility of the skin being addicted, the answer is NO!

To me, it is more a “bad habit” of using topical corticosteroids (TCS), mainly because of wrong expectations of this treatment. When used inappropriately (such as too long, too high, too frequent, or too strong), every medication (even a simple anti-fever medication) can cause side effects or unwanted (unexpected) effects. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that inappropriate usage of TCS can cause withdrawal effects or, at least, unexpected side effects – I strongly doubt the existence of a withdrawal syndrome (especially when there are no specific biopsy features).

What is Steroid Withdrawal and its Symptoms?

MarcieMom: From Dermnetz, topical corticosteroid withdrawal refers to:

(1)   A rash that has appeared within days to weeks of discontinuing topical corticosteroid that has been used for many months. This flare may be worse than the pre-treatment rash. Before stopping the topical corticosteroid, the skin is typically normal or near-normal, although localised itch, ‘resistant’ patches of eczema or prurigo-like nodules may be present; and

(2)   The rash must be only where the topical corticosteroid was being applied, at least initially, although it can later spread more widely.

From the review article by NEA, there are two types of rash:

(1)   Eythematoedematous type – meaning redness (thus topical steroid withdrawal is also referred to as the Red Skin Syndrome), typically found in patients with an underlying eczema-like skin condition like atopic or seborrheic dermatitis; or

(2)   Papulopustular type – meaning with bumps and pimples, typically found in patients who used topical corticosteroids for cosmetic purpose like acne or pigment.

The withdrawal symptoms include:

  1. Burning and stinging
  2. Erythema (redness)
  3. Mostly on the face and genital area of women
  4. Exacerbation with heat or sun
  5. Pruritus (itch)
  6. Pain
  7. Facial hot flashes

Both types of rash primarily affect the face of adult females and are mostly associated with inappropriately using mid- to high-potency topical corticosteroids daily for more than 12 months.

MarcieMom: First of all, it is important to understand what a review article is. It is not a controlled trial, meaning there are no two groups of people that are given different treatments and thereafter the results are evaluated. Instead, it systematically reviews other studies. The limitation of the study is that the quality of evidence in regard to topical corticosteroid withdrawal in the studies reviewed were very low.

MarcieMom: Is there a way to study topical steroid withdrawal definitively?

Professor Hugo: The article is a collection of case reports, and not a study. There are no studies on the subject. Therefore, the quality of the science behind this is very low. It is a misuse of TCS, and you cannot ask patients (is not ethical) to misuse a treatment in order to prove side effects. Better is to look for its existence in patients who didn’t misuse TCS, but I assume the prevalence will be close to zero.

MarcieMom: It is also briefly discussed in the review article that the signs and symptoms of atopic dermatitis may be confused with that of steroid withdrawal. It is suggested in the review article that if:

(1) Burning is the prominent symptom, and

(2) Confluent erythema (meaning continuous red patches) occurs within days to weeks after stopping topical corticosteroids, with

(3) History of frequent, prolonged topical corticosteroid use on the face or genital region, then the symptoms are more likely to be from topical steroid withdrawal (rather than other forms of dermatitis).

MarcieMom: How do we know if the rash is caused by steroid withdrawal and not something else? Would you contact patch testing for contact allergens?

Professor Hugo: The so-called withdrawal syndrome (as a consequence of misusage of TCS) is mainly made-up by a re-occurrence of eczema lesions, as shown by looking at the results of the biopsy studies: the withdrawal syndrome has no specific biopsy features, but mainly features of eczema. Therefore, I am not sure whether the withdrawal syndrome is a separate entity, or whether it is mainly an expression of re-occurrence of eczema. Indeed, I strongly doubt of its existence.

I think the withdrawal syndrome is NOT a new syndrome, but merely a flare-up of eczema on an altered skin (because of the long-term usage of TCS).

It is not a new syndrome because:

  1. It has no specific clinical features (all manifestations might be manifestations of a re-occurring eczema)
  2. It has no biological marker (blood)
  3. It has no solid underlying mechanism – hypothesis
  4. Biopsy finding are similar of findings in eczema (no specific biopsy)

It is merely a re-manifestation eczema, but on an altered skin, because of the long-term usage (misusage) of TCS.

  1. Alterations of the skin can be summarized as following:
  2. A thinner epidermis (as a consequence of misuse of TCS)
  3. Higher Staphylococcus aureus colonization, as TCS do not affect Staph colonization – this explains the papular / pustular (infected) features of the lesions
  4. A concomitant contact dermatitis (to TCS or other substances)

Contact dermatitis is a possibility, but is not common in children (more in adults), especially after years of usage of creams.

Is Steroid Addiction/ Withdrawal common?

In the review article, there were various factors that contributed to topical corticosteroid withdrawal, namely:

  1. Mid or high potency use of topical corticosteroids
  2. Daily use of topical corticosteroids (only one out of the 34 studies recorded frequency)
  3. Duration of use longer than a year

From the studies reviewed, only 7.1% of the cases reported (in these studies) were of patients 18 years and younger. Only 0.3% were for children younger than 3 years.

MarcieMom: The general guideline in topical corticosteroid use for children is using a mild to (no higher than) mid potency, no more than twice a day, for a two week period. Professor Hugo, do you think that it is likely that children will suffer from topical steroid withdrawal even with the right use of prescribed steroid cream?

Professor Hugo: Patients should know that eczema (or atopic dermatitis) is a non-curable disease and that no doctor in the world can cure eczema today (perhaps in the future a cure will be found, mainly through immunomodulatory treatments, but not for the moment i.e. at the time of this interview in September 2016).

TCS are effective in controlling inflammation of the skin, and are, therefore, a part of the therapeutic approach to eczema. However: 1) TCS are ONLY (!) part of the treatment, which constitutes of offering a holistic package to the patient (focused on life style, and on usage of other treatments), and 2) once TSC are stopped the lesions will re-occur, as TCS do not cure, but only control inflammation, and 3) the rule is to use mild TCS (according to age and severity of the patches), in combination with antiseptics (TCS on a clean eczema patch) and NEVER more than 2 x day.

The main observation here is that this withdrawal effect is not caused by the TCS on itself, but by the inappropriate usage (i.e. misusage, leading to over-usage) of it. The unwanted effect was mainly seen in adult women (in more than 90%) who were using their TCS as if it was a kind of moisturizer. In other words, every time they felt a little itch or saw a little flare-up they put their TSC on it, many times per day, and during long periods (in 85.2% for more than 1 year).

The main point here is that TCS were misused, mainly because patients had wrong expectations of TCS, which I assumed is due to lack of correct information on eczema and on the role of TCS in its treatment. Who is to blame? I guess, both the doctor and the patient, and, for sure, the wrong doctor-patient relationship and wrong communication. Correct information on eczema and on the role of TCS is pivotal.

When TCS are used appropriately, as part of the holistic treatment of eczema, and according to correct expectations, it is extremely unlikely that a withdrawal syndrome will occur. I even dare to state that it is even (almost) impossible. However, I recommend close monitoring of all children with eczema, with appropriate individualization of treatment, focused on offering a treatment package in which TCS have a role, but only as a controller of acute inflammation, and with strict rules on their usage.

What are the treatment options for eczema?

MarcieMom: There are many brands and types of topical corticosteroid creams available, with varying potency and with different chemicals, and functions (for instance, with the added ingredients to reduce bacteria or fungus). Often, there is a trial and error process to see if a certain prescription cream works.

MarcieMom: How would a patient know if the steroid cream is not working for his rash? Is there a safe period of trial before stopping?

Professor Hugo: TCS are only PART of the treatment, and usually have a fast effect on acute inflammation (1 – 3 days). For each patient the optimal TCS needs to be selected (based on severity and age) and needs to fit into the whole package of treatment.

MarcieMom: There are many other eczema therapeutics that can be used alongside topical corticosteroids or in place of topical corticosteroids, for instance:

  1. Moisturizing – with a quality emollient that does not contain major irritants and have humectant properties and lipids to help with skin lipid deficiency
  2. Bathing – Basic good bathing routine like no hot water, no soap, no longer than ten minute, pat dry and not rub dry AND moisturizing immediately after
  3. Wet wrap or dry wrap
  4. Ways to reduce staph bacteria, such as swimming, using diluted zinc sulphate or chlorhexidine gluconate
  5. Non-steroidal prescriptions like topical calcineurin inhibitors
  6. Antihistamines (non-conclusive research)

MarcieMom: I’m a believer that one ought to diligently practice good bathing and moisturizing regime, reduce staph bacteria colonization, along with healthy lifestyle (non-inflammatory diet and exercise). However, I find that sometimes we tend to discuss topical corticosteroids exclusively, i.e. use topical corticosteroids or (do something else). What are your top 3 eczema therapeutics in your practice and how effective has these reduce the use of topical corticosteroids in your young patients?

Professor Hugo: My top 3 are: allergen avoidance (airborne food, house dust mites  – which is an outdoor life style) – usage of antiseptics (swimming – baby spa) and extensive usage of moisturizers have important additional effects and are therefore TCS-sparing.

MarcieMom: In summary, topical corticosteroid withdrawal is increasingly acknowledged by the dermatological community as evident by NEA taking the step to conduct a systematic review. However, we have seen that it is not easy to diagnose topical steroid withdrawal, and at the same time, removing topical corticosteroids completely as one of the eczema therapeutics may make it harder to treat the eczema/ skin inflammation. It is therefore important to recognize both the dangers of steroid misuse and underuse. Physicians should adopt an open attitude when hearing about patients’ steroid fears as totally ignoring steroid phobia would possibly alienate patients and without trust, it is making controlling eczema an uphill battle.

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