The winter months can be tough on the skin. The chill, the low humidity and the dry heat we use to warm our homes can more than just nip your nose. It can lead to relentless dry skin and, as a result, itching.
The skin is naturally lubricated by the hair follicle and sweat glands located on most parts of the body. These glands produce an oily material that coats the outer layer of skin, trapping moisture within. When the skin dries out, the nerve endings in your skin are stimulated to cause the itch. Scratching the itch will provide temporary relief, but can also cause further irritation, itching and the self-perpetuating scratch-itch cycle.
Any body part can be affected, but very commonly it’s the parts that are either exposed or rubbed by clothing. Factors that may worsen drying of the skin include frequent exposure to water (e.g. dishwashing) or chemicals (e.g. soaps, detergents and latex) that can cause the body’s natural moisturizers to be worn away. Severe dryness can lead to cracked or fissured skin, bleeding, pain and an easy entry for bacterial infection.
Fortunately, there are measures to prevent excessive dryness of the skin and itching. First of all, a humidifier can provide extra moisture into the air of your home. Make sure to follow the directions for use and for cleaning the unit to avoid spreading unwanted germs throughout your home.
Dry skin can also be minimized by avoiding long, hot baths and showers. The hot water evaporates more quickly, leading to dryness; shorter, cooler showers will lessen the chance of excessive drying. Additionally, if you bathe or shower too often you can dry your skin by removing the body’s natural skin lubricants.
Some soap can dry out your skin or make you feel itchy due to the irritating dyes and perfumes they contain. Choosing hypoallergenic and unscented soap might do the trick. This is also true of laundry detergent and fabric softeners. In addition, choose soft fabrics for your clothing – cotton or silk will be less irritating than wool and other coarse materials.
Moisturizers can mimic the body’s natural lubrication. These topical products help to trap moisture at the skin surface to prevent drying. The key to their use is application just after bathing or showering. The wet skin is patted dry (not scrubbed) and the moisturizer is immediately applied to the damp skin to trap in the moisture. Alcohol-based products evaporate more easily and will dry the skin, so these should be avoided. In general, the thicker and greasier the product, the more effective it will be since thicker products will keep more moisture in. Moisturizers can be applied several times a day as needed. Ointments are best (oils), followed by creams and then lotions. Plain baby oil also works well.
Some medicines are helpful for itching. Antihistamines and topical cortisone creams can be used temporarily to relieve symptoms. A mild over-the-counter cortisone cream (1 percent) can be used for a few days on small areas of the skin. However, never use them for longer than the labeled recommendations (usually a week) as prolonged use can lead to thinning of the skin and worsening of symptoms. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if there is any question as to whether OTC remedies are right for you.
Finally, persistent itching can be a sign of other medical diseases. Be sure to check with your doctor if itching is prolonged or doesn’t respond to conventional over-the-counter remedies.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.