Taking care of eczema (and dry skin in general!) in the winter

Along with hot chocolate and holiday cheer this time of year, it’s also the time of cracked skin and dry hands. For most Americans, dry hands is bad enough. For the millions living with eczema, dry hands can lead to winter flare-ups aka the “winter itch.” 

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What is eczema?

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a common skin condition that affects almost 1 in 10 Americans. It’s most often seen in children but can also affect adults. During an eczema episode or flare-up, dry and extremely itchy rashes on the skin can suddenly appear. Most commonly, they are found on the hands or in areas that bend, like behind the elbows or knees and under the neck. These patches may even “weep” or ooze fluids when scratched or rubbed, causing severe discomfort.

Who gets it?
It’s genetic and NOT contagious (you won’t get it by touching someone who has eczema). Generally, people with a family history of eczema, asthma, or other seasonal allergies are more likely to get it. And women are slightly more likely than men to develop it.

What causes it?
Flare-ups can be triggered by changes in weather, humidity, stress, or even foods and medications. It’s believed that eczema is caused by two things: barrier breakdown and immune dysregulation.

Barrier breakdown refers to the skin’s inability to act as a proper barrier between the external environment and the internal body it protects. When there are structural deficiencies in the skin barrier, too much water leaves the skin, and too many allergens and irritants enter the skin.

Immune dysregulation refers to the body’s overreaction to minor insults to the skin. When allergens enter the skin, or the skin is lightly scratched, the body mounts a larger than necessary response, causing itchiness and inflammation.

Why do flare-ups increase during the winter?
The dry air and indoor heating systems during winter time can dry out our skin. As our skin loses its ability to lock in moisture, the integrity of our skin barrier becomes compromised, leading to more flare-ups. 

What can we do about it?

Some of the following skincare tips for winter eczema can also benefit anyone who suffers from dry skin in the winter.

Moisturize. This is the key to prevention and management. Proper moisturizer can help prevent flare-ups by adding a layer of protection to the skin barrier. Pick creams or ointments over lotions, because lotions generally contain too much water to be effective. Popular creams/ointments include Aveeno Eczema Therapy Cream (incredibly soothing), CeraVe Moisturizing Cream (contains ceramides, a fatty substance in the skin that helps retain moisture), Eucerin Eczema Relief Body Creme (goes on thick), Aquaphor Healing Ointment, and Vaseline Petroleum Jelly Cream (this can be sticky but works wonders for severe dryness when applied over a cream). 

Use humidifiers. If you have indoor heating, then these should be running all winter. They will not only help prevent dry skin, but can also help with congestion and cold symptoms in the winter.

Avoid long hot showers or baths. These can further dry out the skin. Lukewarm showers under 15 minutes are generally fine and can be soothing. After showering, it’s also important to apply creams/ointments immediately after to prevent water evaporation.

Use steroid cream sparingly *for eczema only.* Steroids can be a quick emergency fix for sudden rashes, but over-applying them can cause skin atrophy (thinning) and scarring. If over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams are ineffective, you can always ask your dermatologist for prescription-grade steroid creams to manage flare-ups.

Eczema is a chronic condition that cannot be “cured.” But with some useful tips and proper care, symptoms can be controlled and flare-ups can be reduced. Feel free to comment on what works for you!

Please use the information on this site for your general knowledge only. Its content is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your medical condition.

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