WINTER ITCH
By Colin R. Trout, M.D.

Many people complain of dry, itchy skin that worsens in the winter. It can frequently progress to a diffuse, red, scaly rash that is so itchy that people can’t sleep at night and have difficulty focusing on their normal daily routine. The usual cause of this is xerotic dermatitis, which some people call “winter itch”. This is extremely common in southern Arizona because the climate is generally very dry and during the winter we are inside with heaters that lower the humidity even further. This causes the skin to lose moisture and results in a disruption of the normal barrier of the skin. Once this occurs, there is an inflammatory response (dermatitis) that is very itchy. Over time, with sun exposure and aging, the skin loses its ability to hold in moisture and this condition becomes even more prevalent.

The key to prevention and treatment of this condition is moisture. There are several ways to protect and replenish the barrier of the skin. The most important step is to use moisturizing creams daily. We recommend creams instead of lotions because they hold in more moisture and last longer than lotions. Some people do not like the greasy feeling of creams, but it is a small price to pay to prevent the development of xerotic dermatitis. Another helpful practice is to use soap-free cleansers in the bath or shower, because soap strips the skin of the components that create the barrier and contributes to dryness. Reducing the frequency of water exposure (baths, showers, pools, spa, etc.) and applying the moisturizing cream immediately after drying off will also help prevent flaring of this condition.

If you are disciplined about moisturizing and protecting your skin you can significantly reduce or prevent winter itch. If you have this problem and it is not controlled by the above guidelines, see your dermatologist for an evaluation. They may prescribe a topical steroid to get the condition under control in conjunction with daily moisturizers.

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