How to prevent dry, itchy skin

Woman scratching her neck

When the weather becomes cold and humidity levels drop, keeping your skin healthy and hydrated becomes more important than ever to help prevent dry, itchy skin. Dry air can also cause flare-ups of common skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. While they all tend to worsen during the winter, they are each quite different. Here’s how to tell the difference whether you have a common case of dry, itchy skin or something more chronic and how to prevent flare-ups.

Dry, itchy skin, caused by lack of moisture in the skin is common during the winter months. Your skin’s own oils help lock moisture in, but cold, dry air can pull moisture out and leave your skin feeling dry and itchy.

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Eczema, often called atopic dermatitis, is the most common type of eczema. This is a chronic, inflammatory condition that often begins in infancy or early childhood. Eczema often waxes and wanes throughout one’s life and is frequently associated with asthma and seasonal allergies. It presents with red, dry, scaly and cracked skin. Itching can precede onset of rash and can be intense. While it can appear anywhere on the body, as an infant, it commonly appears on the cheeks, elbows or knees. In childhood, the rash often appears on the inner elbows and behind the knees. As an adult, eczema is frequently seen on the hands.

Megan Arthur, MD, dermatologist

Psoriasis is a chronic, inflammatory skin condition characterized by itchy patches of red skin covered with thick silvery scale. Psoriasis can appear anywhere on the body, but usually appears on the scalp, elbows, knees, hands or feet. It typically has very well-defined borders. It may also cause yellowing, thickening and pitting of the nails. Psoriasis can develop at any age, but most people develop psoriasis before the age of 40. There are many different types of psoriasis, but plaque psoriasis, the one described here, is the most common. Up to a third of people with psoriasis may develop psoriatic arthritis. Psoriasis is also associated with an increased risk for other chronic health conditions such as heart attack and stroke.

The good news is that these skin conditions are manageable. By taking some extra preventive measures you can help minimize dry, cracked, itchy skin and reduce flare-ups of chronic skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

  • Limit your time in the shower and avoid very hot water when you shower as the heat strips oils from your skin
  • Avoid scented deodorant, lotions, antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers that contain alcohol, which can be irritating to the skin and remove natural moisturizers. Use a fragrance-free, non-soap cleanser on your skin
  • After showering, pat your skin gently and lock in moisture with a good moisturizer while the skin is damp
  • Apply thick moisturizers every day. Creams and ointments that come in jars rather than pump bottles are usually better at locking in moisture. The greasier the better. Petroleum jelly is a good option
  • Running a humidifier in your home can help replenish moisture in the air
  • Cover up when you go outdoors to prevent cold temperature and wind from drying and chaffing your skin

Unfortunately, even the best skin practices may not eliminate the symptoms caused by eczema and psoriasis. Patients who do not respond to gentle skin care and thick moisturizing creams often require topical corticosteroids that can help reduce inflammation and itching. Phototherapy, an in-office light treatment, can also provide relief. Oral medications may be used to suppress inflammation in the skin for patients who do not respond to these therapies. Lastly, injectable medications, also called biologics, which work to modulate the immune system, have provided very good results for both eczema and psoriasis patients and in some cases, has been life changing for these people.

If you have dry, itchy, scaly skin that seems to be more than a winter flare-up, consider being evaluated by your doctor. There are many types of treatments today that can help minimize your skin condition and provide relief.