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
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
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.