Itchiness is common when the cold, dry winter air saps moisture from your skin. Fortunately, weather-related dry skin isn’t usually serious and is easily treated. It's also best to learn how to prevent itchy skin before the next bout of cold weather rolls around.
The Cold Facts
The top layer of skin is made of dead skin cells embedded in a mix of natural oils. The oils in this skin layer help keep water inside the body and prevent irritants and germs from entering. The dead cells and skin oils lock some water into the top layer, which keeps the skin soft and smooth. Cold, dry air can damage the top skin layer, allowing water in the skin to escape and causing small cracks that expose underlying cells to irritants and germs. The irritation may cause nerves in the skin to send “itch” signals to the brain.
The Itch Factor
Itching can range in severity from mildly irritating to extremely uncomfortable and disruptive. Weather-related itching may be accompanied by other dry skin symptoms, such as dullness, flakiness, roughness and more visible fine lines.
Applying a hypoallergenic oil or cream should help reduce your itchy skin by keeping it moist. Apply the moisturizer three or four times per day and right after you wash your hands or shower, to seal in the water’s moisture, recommends the American Academy of Family Physicians. If you tend to stand in a hot shower for 20 minutes or more, cut your shower time in half and turn down the heat to lukewarm. Use a moisturizing soap that contains little to no dye or fragrance to reduce irritation. You can also sprinkle some dry oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal product into a cool bath to soothe your skin.
When to See Your Doctor
Itchy and dry skin is at increased risk for infections. Your skin may be infected if it is swollen, red and warm, or if it is oozing fluid. See your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms or if your skin itch persists despite your best attempts to treat it with home remedies. Persistent itching may lead to prolonged scratching, which could cause permanent scarring or thick and leathery skin.
Your doctor may recommend that you try an over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream for a week to reduce itching, or he may prescribe a stronger cream or an oral antihistamine medication if the 1 percent cream doesn’t tame the itch.