Possible Side Effects of Anti-Inflammatory Creams

For centuries, anti-inflammatory medicines have been used to treat a variety of aches, pains, and skin conditions. These days, Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are widely used to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain and discomfort. NSAIDs can be consumed orally or also take the form of gels, creams and ointments that you apply topically to the skin. Creams like diclofenac, ibuprofen, and naproxen have been proven to provide effective and fast-acting relief. 

Although these anti-inflammatory creams are generally considered safe and effective, they may have some possible side effects when used for an extended period of time. Whether you’re using an over-the-counter cream or a prescription cream, it’s important to understand the potential risks that come along with taking any medication. In this post, we’ll walk you through the possible side effects of popular anti-inflammatory creams, so you can make an informed decision when it’s time to treat your pain.

How Anti-inflammatory Creams Work?


Anti-inflammatory creams and gels provide relief from inflammation, pain, and irritation. Knowing how and why these topical remedies work can help you decide if they are the right option for your condition. Anti-inflammatory creams contain active ingredients which act to inhibit the production of inflammatory molecules known as prostaglandins. 

Most anti-inflammatory creams contain corticosteroids as the active ingredient, although some contain anesthetics or analgesics such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium.They surround the affected tissues and inhibit the release of inflammatory molecules, reducing their levels. This enables them to lower the severity of inflammation and resulting pain.

Depending on the condition being treated, other ingredients might also be included to assist with pain relief or provide additional healing benefits. These can include moisturizers and emollients, hydrocortisone, menthol, aloe vera gel, witch hazel extract, herbal extracts, and other natural ingredients. 

Types of Anti-inflammatory Creams 

There are several types of anti-inflammatory creams available for treating different conditions or symptoms. The first are over-the-counter corticosteroid creams that can be used to treat minor skin conditions such as sunburn, eczema, and insect bites. Then there are prescription corticosteroid creams that may be prescribed to treat more serious skin conditions such as psoriasis. The nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also commonly used to reduce swelling and tenderness. They are in the list of the most prescribed drugs in the US, including Ibuprofen, Naproxen and Meloxicam. 

The most prescribed drugs in the US as reported in 2019

Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of Anti-inflammatory Gels and Creams 

The effectiveness of an anti-inflammatory cream or gel is determined by a few factors including:

  • Concentration: The amount of active ingredient(s) in a product is referred to as its concentration. More concentrated products tend to provide faster relief than less concentrated ones.
  • Blood Flow: When applied topically, anti-inflammatory medications can increase blood flow to the area that they are applied to. It can help reduce inflammation by increasing the removal of waste products from the affected area, thus improving healing. 
  • Formula: The ingredients used in an anti-inflammatory cream can greatly affect its effectiveness. It is important to research the different ingredients used in an anti-inflammatory cream or gel before use.
  • Massage: Massaging the affected area can increase circulation, promote tissue repair, and help release tension in muscles that may have become tight due to inflammation.

Applications of Anti-inflammatory Creams

Anti-inflammatory creams and gels can be used to help manage a variety of conditions. However, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider before using any anti-inflammatory products as they may not be suitable for everyone or all conditions. They can be used to treat a range of conditions including:

  • Acute muscle strain 
  • Plantar fasciitis 
  • Bursitis 
  • Patellar tendinitis 
  • Shin splints 
  • Ligament strain 
  • Achilles tendinitis 
  • Tennis and golfer’s elbow 
  • ITB syndrome 

Common Side Effects of Anti-inflammatory Creams

As with any medication or medical product, there are also certain side effects associated with anti-inflammatory creams that users need to be aware of. Being aware of these potential side effects can ensure that you use them safely and effectively. 

Skin Irritation and Allergic Reactions 


The active ingredient in anti-inflammatory creams may cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction in some patients. This side effect can exhibit itself as redness, itching, burning, or swelling. Discontinue use if you experience any of these reactions and consult your doctor if symptoms persist. 

Thinning of the Skin 

Long-term use of anti-inflammatory creams can lead to thinning of the skin which can increase the risk of infection or other complications. If you are using an anti-inflammatory cream for an extended period of time, talk to your physician about monitoring your skin for signs of thinning or other changes. 

Changes in Skin Pigmentation 


Anti-inflammatory creams may also cause changes in skin pigmentation. Long-term users may experience lightening or darkening of certain skin areas. It is important to have your skin monitored for any unusual changes in pigmentation if you have been using anti-inflammatory gels for an extended period of time.

Increased Susceptibility to Infections 


Some anti-inflammatory creams impair the body’s ability to fight off infections. Thus, making it more likely for infections to occur on areas of skin where the cream has been applied. Some signs of infection include redness, itching, swelling or discharge. 

Systemic Side Effects

In rare cases, some active ingredients in anti-inflammatory creams may be absorbed into the bloodstream and cause systemic (whole body) side effects such as headaches, dizziness, nausea or fatigue. Discontinue use if you experience any systemic side effects and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Risk Factors Associated with Side Effects 

There are some risk factors associated with the possible side effects. This section explores these factors to help you understand better. 

Preexisting Skin Conditions

People with preexisting skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis may be more likely to experience side effects from anti-inflammatory creams. Since their skin barrier is already fragile, these medications can sometimes worsen the condition. 


While anti-inflammatory creams can be used by people of all ages, younger children are more likely to suffer from side effects. Their thinner skin is more susceptible to absorption of the active ingredients than adult skin, so the risk factors intensify. 

Long-term Use 

Prolonged use of these creams can make people more prone to experiencing side effects. Long term use can result in increased absorption rates over time and repeated exposure to some active ingredients like steroids, which can negatively impact your overall health. 

Use with Other Medications 

People who take certain types of medications, such as certain antibiotics or antifungal agents might be at a higher risk for experiencing side effects. Concurrently using anti-inflammatory creams with those medications might result in negative interaction between the elements of both medicines. 

Ways to Minimize Side Effects 

If the above discussion has you worried, know that there are some ways to minimize, even prevent the side effects of an anti-inflammatory cream. These include:

Use Proper Application Technique 


Proper application technique is critical when it comes to minimizing side effects from topical anti-inflammatory creams. Applying one improperly can increase absorption rates making you more prone to their adverse reactions. Always apply the cream gently on clean, dry skin using just enough for a thin layer over the affected area. Do not exceed the prescribed dosage unless advised by your doctor.  

Choose the Right Type of Cream


There are many different types of topicals currently available on the market. Some of these may be more suitable for certain conditions than others, so you have to be very careful about choosing the right anti-inflammatory cream for your condition. Talking to your doctor about which one is best for you is essential if you want to reduce potential side effects associated with these medications. 

Limit Use of Creams to the Affected Area

Restricting use of topical medications only on the parts where inflammation is present helps lessen systemic absorption rates. Meaning it is less likely that there will be any systemic side effects associated with it. Additionally, you should avoid contact with eyes and lips since those areas have more delicate skin than other parts. The chances of irritation increase if contact happens, even when using prescribed dosage for topical medications.  

Seek Medical Advice Before Use 


Last but extremely important, always consult your doctor before using any anti-inflammatory medication, even over-the-counter ones. Talking openly about any allergies, existing health issues, family history, etc. might also help minimize the potential risks associated with topical anti inflammatory treatments. That’s why it is very important that you seek out a medical opinion before starting any treatment plan related to these medications. 


It is important for individuals using anti-inflammatory creams to understand that there may be some risks associated with their use. Common side effects include skin irritation, allergic reactions, skin thinning, changes in skin pigmentation, and increased susceptibility to infections. Systemic side effects may also occur in cases involving long term use or concurrent use with other medications. 

Risk factors such as preexisting skin conditions, age, and long term use can all increase the risk of experiencing side effects of using these creams. To reduce the risk of potential side effects, it is important to follow proper application techniques, choose an appropriate cream based on medical condition being treated, limit use to the affected area only and always seek medical advice before using them for an extended period of time or in conjunction with other medicines.