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What is a Topical Anesthetic?

By Felicia Dye
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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One of the effects of an anesthetic is a loss of feeling. A topical anesthetic is a medicinal product that can be used on the skin or on certain surfaces inside the body, like the inside of the nose or throat. This is often done to relieve pain or itching associated with conditions such as sunburn, eczema, and arthritis. There are numerous products in this category. Some are available over the counter while others are available by prescription only.

The main purpose of using a topical anesthetic is to create a feeling of numbness. If a person is suffering from the burning and itching associated with eczema, for example, she may rub such a product on the site where she is experiencing the problem. This type of anesthetic works by temporarily blocking the feelings of the nerve endings. Such a product does not heal any conditions; it only makes living with them more bearable.

A topical anesthetic is not always used to relieve discomfort. Sometimes these are applied to avoid discomfort. This may be done, for example, before a dental procedure. The dentist may massage a topical anesthetic into a patient’s gums.

Anesthetics are also used to numb skin where needles will be inserted into the skin. In many cases, this is preparation for the use of stronger anesthetics which will be administered by way of injection. This may also be done before blood extraction or the insertion of needles for various intravenous fluids.

Topicals come in a number of forms, including creams, gels, and sprays. The best form is chosen depending on why the product is needed and where on the body it is needed. For many people, the word “topical” may suggest that these products can only be used externally. This is not the case.

There are numerous instances when a topical may be used to numb an orifice such as the nose, mouth, or vagina. The word “topical” in this sense merely indicates that these anesthetic products are not injected. The effects experienced from this treatment can vary. Circumstances, such as which product is used and how much is applied, can have a significant impact. The strongest products tend to be available only by prescription.

Misuse of topical anesthetics can sometimes result in harm. One good example of this is situations where these products are used excessively to relieve eye pain. This overuse can cause permanent damage to the eye. Adverse effects may also be experienced when certain products are used on damaged skin.

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Discussion Comments

By backdraft — On Nov 02, 2011

I am planning on getting my first tattoo at the end of the month. I have been wanting to get a tattoo for a long time but I have always been worried about the pain. I am thinking now that I need to just suck it up and dive right in.

But after I read this article I began to wonder if it would be possible to use a topical anesthetic to ease the pain of the tattoo? I have never heard of anyone doing this and maybe there is a good reason that they don't. But if there is any way that I could get my ink and not have to live through the pain of those needles I would take it.

By orangey03 — On Nov 01, 2011

Anyone who has ever had a severe sunburn knows that the stinging, itching, and burning it brings with it make you miserable. I got burned badly during a beach vacation, and my discomfort was so intense that I had to use a topical anesthetic.

One second, I was wishing I could peel my skin off my body and be free of the torture, and the next, I was fine. The anesthetic worked right away, and it seemed downright miraculous.

I had to keep using it until my sunburn started to peel and the worst of the symptoms went away. This experience has made me start doing two things - reapplying sunscreen often and keeping a topical anesthetic in the house at all times.

By lighth0se33 — On Oct 31, 2011

I got sore throats a lot as a kid, and my mother once bought a topical anesthetic spray to make my pain go away for awhile. She didn’t tell me that it would deaden my mouth, though, and I was shocked when I suddenly had no sensation in there at all.

Even my tongue went numb. It felt so wrong! It was really uncomfortable, and though it took my mind off of my sore throat, I couldn’t decide which was worse.

Last year, I got strep throat twice. As much as I hate to be numb, I used a throat spray like the one from my childhood, because the pain was unbearable. I didn’t mind the weird feeling of being numb as much, because I could actually swallow for awhile, and that was a great relief.

By StarJo — On Oct 31, 2011

@burcidi - I have begun suffering from arthritis pain in my hands. I have thought about using a topical anesthetic, but I have been hesitant to try it because I don’t know what to expect.

Does a topical anesthetic make your hands go completely numb? Do they feel like your cheeks feel after your dentist has deadened them with a shot? I hate that absence of feeling, and I don’t want to use the anesthetic if this is how it will affect me.

On the other hand, if it somehow deadens just the nerves that are hurting and leaves the rest of your hands with their sensations intact, I would love to try it. I still want to be able to pick things up without dropping them.

By shell4life — On Oct 31, 2011

@Mykol - Yes, topical anesthetics used by dentists are wonderful. Depending on my procedure, sometimes that’s all he has to use, but other times, he rubs it on my gums before injecting a shot of novocaine.

I like it when all he uses is the topical anesthetic. It only deadens the area that he rubs it into, unlike the shots, which numb an entire side of my face. Sometimes, my lips and tongue even go numb from the shots, and I hate that sensation.

After he rubs it on my gums, all I can feel is slight pressure. It’s strange, because I know that something is touching the area, but I’m not feeling a thing.

By andee — On Oct 30, 2011

I work in a day care and am constantly exposed to kids with sore throats and runny noses. Because of this, I seem to catch a cold many times a year.

If I wake up with a sore, scratchy throat the first thing I do is use a topical anesthetic spray for my throat.

I always make sure to have a bottle of this at home and at work. If my throat continues to feel sore, I will spray it several times a day.

When I use this spray, I can tell a difference right away. My throat feels instant relief and stays that way for quite awhile.

Using a spray like this is a quick and convenient way to stay on top of it.

By ysmina — On Oct 30, 2011

@fify-- Some people do abuse medications and use them more than they need to. But in some situations, there is not other choice.

My mom was in a bus accident and during the accident one of the pipes in the bus ruptured and burned her foot. Thankfully she was fine otherwise and she received treatment for her burn right away. But it was a third degree burn and inevitably caused her a lot of pain until it healed. The doctor gave her a topical anesthetic so that she could bear the pain in this time period.

Clearly, in this situation there was nothing else to be done for her and she just had to wait for the burn to heal. She had to use topical anesthetics so that the ordeal would be bearable and easier for her.

By fify — On Oct 29, 2011

I think it's okay to use topical anesthetics once in a while and under doctor supervision. But I don't think they should be used regularly.

The reason is because I believe that we have the feeling of pain for a reason. It's our body's way of telling us that something is wrong. By regularly numbing the area that is in pain, we are losing our connection and communication with that area. If it was becoming worse, we would never know because we can't feel anything.

That's why I think it's best to keep topical anesthetics to a minimum. Even after I had surgery, I used a topical anesthetic around my stitches for only two days. I wanted to feel the pain so that I could monitor how it was doing.

By Mykol — On Oct 29, 2011

I have a low pain tolerance, and don't mind being treated with a topical anesthetic to avoid experiencing pain.

Even though I faithfully go to the dentist, I always dread these appointments. The regular cleaning is not so bad, but if I have to have extra work done, I really dread it.

I am thankful for the dental topical anesthetic he uses, but sometimes think this is worse than the actual novocaine. I can immediately feel the area he is going to be working on go numb, so once he inserts the needle, I don't feel any pain.

I always wonder how people were able to withstand any kind of dental procedure before they had such wide use of these kinds of topical anesthetics. I am very thankful for them as I know it is much better than the alternative!

By burcidi — On Oct 29, 2011

I use a topical anesthetic cream for my chronic arthritis. My arthritis is really bad and aches constantly. It's even worse at night and I'm unable to sleep unless I apply some anesthetic cream on it. So I keep the cream by my bedside and apply it before I go to sleep. Within a matter of minutes, the pain disappears and I can sleep peacefully until morning.

I've been to the doctor many times for my condition but they are unable to do anything about it except for prescribing pain killers. I don't like to take oral tablets because I have a sensitive stomach and I've been told that too much pain relieving medications are dangerous for the stomach and can even lead to ulcers.

Topical anesthetics are much better because I don't have to take anything orally and they work so quickly.

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