Medications for Skin Conditions

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on June 04, 2023
6 min read

Medications used to treat skin conditions include topical and oral drugs.

Some common topical treatments for skin conditions are:

Antibacterials. These medicines, including mupirocin or clindamycin, are often used to treat or prevent infection.

Side effects of antibacterials are rare, but they can include:

  • Cracks or sores in your skin
  • Heat loss in your body
  • Red, swollen, scaly, blistered, crusted, irritated, dry, or itchy skin
  • Canker sores
  • Painful, tender, or warm skin
  • White spots on your lips or tongue or inside your mouth

Anthralin. This drug, though not often used because it can be irritating and can stain, helps reduce inflammation and can help treat psoriasis.

If you take anthralin, tell your doctor right away if you have any of these side effects:

  • An allergic reaction (like a rash, itching, hives, or swelling in your face, lips, or tongue)
  • Intense skin irritation
  • Soreness near the area you put it on your body
  • Spreading of lesions

Other side effects like discoloration of your hair, nails, or skin or mild skin irritation usually don't need medical help. But let your doctor know if they last a long time.

Antifungal agents.Clotrimazole (Lotrimin), ketoconazole (Nizoral), and terbinafine (Lamisil AT), are a few examples of common topical antifungal drugs used to treat skin conditions such as ringworm and athlete's foot.

Side effects of antifungals aren't common, but can include:

  • Stinging, itching, burning, redness, peeling, or irritation
  • Dry or oily hair or scalp
  • Headache
  • Rash

Benzoyl peroxide. Creams, gels, washes, and foams containing benzoyl peroxide are used to treat acne.

You might notice some common side effects with benzoyl peroxide such as:

  • Dry, peeling, or red skin
  • Skin irritation (like burning or stinging)

Stop using this medication if you notice severe side effects like:

  • Swelling in the area you use the medication
  • Blisters on your skin

It's rare, but some people have a severe allergic reaction to benzoyl peroxide called anaphylaxis. When this happens, a person might feel lightheaded or faint, have breathing troubles, wheeze, have a fast heartbeat, be confused or anxious, have clammy skin, collapse, or lose consciousness. Call 911 right away if this happens.

Coal tar. You can get this topical treatment with or without a prescription, with strengths ranging from 0.5% to 5%. Coal tar is used to treat conditions including seborrheic dermatitis (usually in shampoos) or psoriasis. Currently, coal tar is seldom used because it can be slow to act and can cause severe staining of personal clothing and bedding.

Common side effects of coal tar include:

  • Skin irritation
  • Changes in your hair color
  • Photosensitivity (more sensitive skin to sunlight)
  • Acne-like breakouts on your skin

Call your doctor right away if you notice any serious side effects like:

  • Intense stinging or burning on your skin
  • Worsening psoriasis
  • Swelling

Corticosteroids. These are used to treat skin conditions including eczema. Corticosteroids come in many different forms including foams, lotions, ointments, and creams.

Some possible common side effects of corticosteroids include burning or stinging in the area where you applied the medication.

Nonsteroidal ointment. The ointments crisaborole (Eucrisa) and tacrolimus (Protopic) and the creams pimecrolimus (Elidel), tapinarof (Vtama), ruxolitinib (Opzelura), and roflumilast (Zoryve) also are prescribed for eczema, including atopic dermatitis.

Some more common side effects of these drugs may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Aches and pain
  • Itchy skin (in children)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sneezing
  • Body weakness
  • Burning or a feeling of warmth on your skin
  • Skin flushing if you drink alcohol

Retinoids. These medications (such as Aklief, Differin, Retin-A, and Tazorac) are gels, foams, lotions, or creams derived from vitamin A and are used to treat conditions including acne.

These can sometimes cause side effects. Let your doctor know if you notice:

  • Intense burning or stinging on your skin
  • Deep grooves or lines in your skin
  • Severe itchiness, dryness, redness, or peeling on your skin
  • Swelling or painful skin
  • Color changes on the skin where you used the medication 
  • Rash (if you have psoriasis)
  • Sunburn

Allergic reactions can also happen with some types of retinoids. This might include a rash, itching, or hives. Get emergency help right away if you:

  • Have trouble breathing
  • Have chest pain 
  • Get swelling in your face, eyes, lips, tongue, or throat

Salicylic acid. This drug is sold in lotions, gels, soaps, shampoos, washes, and patches. Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in many skin care products for the treatment of acne and warts.

More common side effects of salicylic acid include:

  • Mild skin irritation
  • Stinging

It's less common, but more intense skin irritation can also happen.

Some common oral or injection treatments for skin conditions include:

Antibiotics. Oral antibiotics are used to treat many skin conditions. Common antibiotics include dicloxacillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline.

Tell your doctor right away if you notice some symptoms such as:

  • Black or tar-like stool
  • Pain or difficulty when peeing
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Allergic reactions (skin rash, itching, hives, swelling of the face, lips, or tongue)
  • Trouble breathing or wheezing
  • Swollen joints

For other side effects, you don't need a doctor unless they start to bother you. They include:

  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Upset stomach
  • Sore mouth

Antifungal agents. Oral antifungal drugs include fluconazole and itraconazole. These drugs can be used to treat more severe fungal infections. Terbinafine is an oral antifungal medicine that may be used to treat fungal infections of the nails.

Side effects of these might include:

  • Hard time peeing
  • Fever
  • More thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Being less hungry
  • Changes in your mood
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling more sleepy or tired
  • Seizures
  • Breathing issues
  • Cramps or muscle pain
  • Numbness or tingling in your hands, lips, or feet

Antiviral agents. Common antiviral agents include acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex). Antiviral treatments are used for skin conditions including those related to herpes and shingles.

Check with your doctor if you notice any of these side effects:

  • Feeling discouraged, empty, cranky, or sad
  • A loss of interest or pleasure
  • A lower appetite
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling sleepy or sleeping issues
  • Stomach pain, cramps, or nausea
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Pain, swelling, or redness in the area that you got the shot

Corticosteroids. These medications, including prednisone, can help treat skin conditions linked to autoimmune diseases including vasculitis and inflammatory diseases such as eczema. Dermatologists prefer topical steroids to avoid side effects, but short-term use of prednisone is sometimes necessary.

See your doctor right away if you notice:

  • Aggression, agitation, or other mood changes
  • That you pee less
  • Dizziness
  • Blurry vision
  • Changes in your heartbeat or pulse
  • Headache
  • Noisy or rattling breathing or shortness of breath
  • Swelling in your hands, feet, fingers, or lower legs
  • Numbness in your arms or legs
  • Weight gain
  • Pounding in your ears
  • Issues with speaking walking, or thinking

Immunosuppressants. Immunosuppressants, such as azathioprine (Imuran) and methotrexate (Trexall), can be used to treat conditions including severe cases of psoriasis and eczema.
Let your doctor know if any of these side effects happen:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in your hair color or texture, alongside hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Strange bruising or bleeding
  • Blood in your poop, pee, or vomit
  • Mouth sores
  • Black and tar-like poop
  • Bleeding gums
  • Faster heartbeat
  • Joint pain
  • Yellow eyes or skin
  • Breathing troubles
  • Swelling of your face, lips, hands, feet, lower legs, mouth, or eyelids
  • Rash, reddening, itching, or red spots on your skin

Biologics. These new therapies are the latest ways to treat psoriasis and other conditions. Examples of biologics include adalimumab (Humira), adalimumab-atto (Amjevita), a biosimilar to Humira, brodalumab (Siliq), dupilumab (Dupixent), etanercept (Enbrel), etanercept-szzs (Erelzi), a biosimilar to Enbrel, guselkumab (Tremfya), infliximab (Remicade), ixekizumab (Taltz), risankizumab (Skyrizi),  secukinumab (Cosentyx), tildrakizumab (Ilumya), and ustekinumab (Stelara).

Side effects of biologics can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Redness
  • Chills
  • Skin that's tender and warm
  • Itchiness or itchy eyes and lips (if you use an IV)
  • Full body rash

Enzyme inhibitors. Enzyme inhibitors such as apremilast (Otezla), deucravacitinib (Sotyktu), and roflumilast (Zoryve) shut down an enzyme in the immune system to fight inflammation. Eucrisa ointment is an enzyme inhibitor FDA approved for mild to moderate atopic dermatitis/eczema.

Some more common side effects of these drugs include:

  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Body aches and pains
  • Voice loss
  • Ear congestion
  • Nausea
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Infection

JAK inhibitors. These include oral abrocitinib (Cibinqo), topical ruxolitinib (Opzelura), and upadacitinib (Rinvoq).

JAK inhibitors like these may cause:

  • Blemishes, flushing, redness, or itching around the application site
  • Stuffy nose
  • Shingles
  • Serious infections, 
  • Malignancies (cancerous growths) 
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Blood clots
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Body pain or aches
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of voice
  • Ear congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Strange tiredness or weakness

Retinoids.Acitretin (Soriatane) is specifically used to treat all types of severe psoriasis. It reduces skin cell growth. It causes severe birth defects and should not be used if you are planning to become pregnant, are pregnant, or breastfeeding.

Possible side effects of these medications include:

  • Back, joint, or bone pain
  • Strange aftertaste
  • Change in your taste
  • Consistent ringing or buzzing in your ear
  • Trouble talking or walking
  • Feeling or warmth 
  • Intense headache
  • More sensitivity to pain or touch
  • Muscle stiffness, toughness, or tension
  • Loss of hearing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sleep issues
  • Tongue irritation
  • Skin redness
  • Easy bruising
  • Tingling in your hands or feet