Winter Warning: Dry Skin Ahead!
By Mark Wardle, DO, Assistant Professor of Primary Care Medicine and Medical Spanish Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine
With the onset of cold weather, more people than usual are suffering from dry, irritated skin—especially on the hands. The cold, dry air, along with frequent hot to cold and wet to dry changes, is the common culprit. For some, dry skin is just a small nuisance, but for others it can be a blizzard of rough, painful, and cracked skin. Fortunately, there are ways to winterproof your birthday suit.
Prevention is first! Keep your hands warm and wear gloves outside. Shower and wash in warm or cool water, not hot water. Pat dry (instead of rubbing), and apply a moisturizing cream to your troubled areas. Put moisturizer near the sink to use after washing your hands. Be careful to avoid lotions that contain alcohol or fragrances. The alcohol dries out your skin as it evaporates, and the fragrances can cause irritation. Wear comfortable clothes that breathe well but keep you warm so that you do not sweat. Keep irritating material (like wool) off your skin. The key is to avoid as many wet to dry episodes as possible (like excessive hand or dish washing), and when you can’t avoid it, lather up with moisturizer!
If prevention is not enough to keep Jack Frost from irritating your skin, it is time to fight back! Use high quality moisturizers throughout the day to keep those troubled spots constantly treated. One of the cheapest moisturizers is petroleum jelly (like Vaseline®), but there are many others that don’t leave you quite as greasy (so that you can still open doors). Before bed, lather up with moisturizer so that sleeping time can be healing time. Avoid getting sheets oily from greased-up hands by covering your hands with clean socks. This helps to keep sheets clean and the moisturizer in place during the night.
For moderately irritated spots, a trial of over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream two to three times a day for up to a week can often help stop the flares. You should still use the moisturizing creams during the rest of the day. Hydrocortisone, a mild steroid cream, helps to calm down the irritation and let the skin heal. Steroids can have side-effects, like thinning the skin or changing skin pigmentation (color), so they should not be used for extended periods of time without physician supervision. If the dry skin flare-up calms down within the week of treatment, stop using it, but continue with the regular preventative measures.
If nothing seems to be helping, schedule an appointment with your doctor. While proper care and prevention can often keep that co-pay in your pocket, there are times when extra help from a physician is needed. Extreme redness or pain can sometimes indicate there is more than just dry skin or mild eczema at play, and a doctor should evaluate it. If there are other symptoms (fever, cough, body aches, sore throat, fatigue), having your skin checked out by a physician is best. Finally, a visit with your physician is needed as well if you have been trying the above measures and are not seeing improvement or if the condition is worsening.