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What is a Topical Anti-Inflammatory?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A topical anti-inflammatory is a type of medication used to treat pain and swelling. Rather than being taken internally, these medications are applied directly to the skin. They are often used to treat conditions such as arthritis and bursitis. In addition, a topical anti-inflammatory treatment may sometimes help with sprains and bruising. They are usually grouped into two types, steroidal and non-steroidal, and are typically available as creams, gels, or in spray-on form.

A non-steroidal topical anti-inflammatory is usually available over the counter without a prescription. These usually contain ibuprofen, acetaminophen or aspirin as the base ingredient. Anti-inflammatory medications that contain aspirin may pose some allergic risk for those who are allergic to aspirin, so users should read label ingredients before purchasing.

Other types of non-steroidal topical anti-inflammatory treatments consist of capsaicin, or ingredients that are considered counter irritants. Capsaicin works by diminishing chemicals inside nerve cells responsible for transferring pain signals to the brain. Capsaicin is naturally found in some types of hot peppers. Counter irritants are believed to soothe pain by focusing brain attention away from the injury. Some counter irritants that are often used in anti-inflammatory ointments include eucalyptus, menthol, and wintergreen.

Side effects of these treatments can vary, but often include a burning sensation of the skin, skin rashes, and allergic reactions. Users should take extra care to be sure that these ointments do not get into the eyes, as eye contact can cause severe burning and temporary blurred vision. In addition, not all topical anti-inflammatory ointments are intended for use on open wounds.

In some cases, it may be necessary to use a topical anti-inflammatory that has a steroid base. These medications are typically available by prescription only, though some types with extremely low levels of cortisone can be purchased without prescription. These ointments are frequently used to treat a number of conditions, including arthritis and skin disorders such as dermatitis and eczema. In addition, some steroidal topical anti-inflammatory medications have been successful in treating acne and diminishing acne scarring.

Licorice, aloe vera, and oatmeal are all believed to have some anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, a type of daisy called chamomile has been used for centuries to help combat pain and swelling associated with arthritis. Though chamomile is usually consumed as a tea, it can also be made into an ointment that can be directly applied to the skin. Most of these herbal topical anti-inflammatory creams are available at health food stores, though some health practitioners prefer to mix their own.

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Discussion Comments

By BoniJ — On Aug 31, 2011

@Bertie68 - I also have arthritis in my knee. I've tried taking internal ibuprofen, but I got a little concerned about the side effects of taking it regularly. Then I tried some of the topical anti-inflammatory medication and found they just didn't work well.

Then someone told me about a topical cream called DynaFreeze. The main ingredient is the natural herb Yerba Mate that comes from a South American holly shrub. It seems to go deeper, acts quicker and lasts longer(sometimes six hours) than other topicals.

It's the best topical for my knee arthritis that I've found.

By Bertie68 — On Aug 30, 2011

I have arthritis in my knee and am looking for a topical anti-inflammatory. I've tried some of the over-the-counter ones like Icy Hot. They have a pretty strong smell that lingers quite a while. And they don't seem to dull the pain for very long.

I don't think that I want to take a prescription strength anti-inflammatory. I'd also rather apply a topical medication instead of taking ibuprofen internally.

Does anyone know of any over-the-counter topical that doesn't have a strong smell and has a lasting effect?

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