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Dry Skin: Stop Scratching This Winter

Not long ago, I was speaking with a nurse who asked, "What can I do about my dry, itchy skin? Do I need medication?" Kim, who has many years of health-care experience, continued: "This seems to happen every winter, especially as I get older."

After we talked a bit, I found out that Kim lived in an apartment with forced, hot-air heat, but had no humidifier. She also liked to take long, hot showers (at night and in the morning) and often used a scented antibacterial soap. Then, to keep warm and comfortable, she would wear woolen sweaters and socks.

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Unfortunately, winter is the season for dry skin and chapped lips because lower air temperatures and low humidity result in drier air. The dryness is made worse by forced, hot-air heating in homes and offices. The dry air causes skin to lose more moisture and become itchy.

As we age, winter dryness becomes worse because the natural oil layer in our skin (which protects it from losing moisture) is depleted. Frequent baths or showers further removes this protective oil layer, and the cycle of winter-dry skin continues.

Flaky Means Dry Skin, Right?

With apologies to Dr. Mom, the most common cause of itchiness (without a rash) is dry skin. In fact, the most common symptom of dry skin is that itchy feeling, not the dry-skin flakes. Just because your skin is flaky, doesn't mean it's dry. A common example is seborrhea, a skin condition where the skin is flaky and oily, not dry.

Stop the Itch!

If your skin is itchy for no obvious reason, try using a moisturizer before visiting your health-care professional. Moisturizers add a protective oil layer to your skin and decrease the amount of moisture lost to dry air. You don't need to use fancy or expensive moisturizer. Sometimes simpler is better because "special" added ingredients may not result in any benefit to your skin, even though the hype of the product may sound great!

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Some moisturizers feel greasier than others because they contain a lot of oil. These types stay on longer and are better for really dry skin, but tend to feel heavy and uncomfortable.

The water-based moisturizers feel lighter on the skin but they don't stay on as long, nor do they provide the same degree of skin protection as the oilier type. Sometimes your doctor will have to prescribe a medication to help heal dry skin, but for the common, easier-to-help causes of the "winter itch", here are some suggestions to stop that scratching:

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  • Lotions are good for most parts of your body, but creams are best for the really rough areas such as elbows, knees, hands and feet.
  • Try not to use bath oils because they don't stay on the skin very long and make the tub slippery and more dangerous.
  • Apply a moisturizer after you take a bath or shower. This will help keep your skin hydrated. It's often best to take a bath or shower before you go to bed. Cold dry air tends to cause the moisture on your skin to evaporate, setting up a cycle of drier skin.
  • Drink plenty of water (as long as you have no fluid restrictions), not soda or caffeinated beverages.
  • Avoid long showers or baths, use warm water, not hot, and try not to use scented soaps or detergents.
  • Don't wear wool or other scratchy materials against your skin.
  • Wear gloves when washing dishes, or if your hands are exposed to harsh chemicals.
  • Consider getting a humidifier during the heating season, or use the time-proven method of keeping pots filled with water near the heating vents to increase the moisture in the air.
  • Don't lick chapped lips because this will lead to even more fluid loss and more lip cracking.

If these measures don't stop the itch in a week or two, or if you notice any red rashes or patches, then schedule a visit with your health-care professional.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., is a family physician. He is program director of Family Practice Residency Frankford Hospitals, Jefferson Health System, Philadelphia, Pa. He also is a medical correspondent for The Comcast Network, CN8, contributing writer to the New York Times and writes a weekly medical column for the Bucks Courier Times, Bucks County Pa.

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