Winter Itch

Despite its name, the season for winter itch begins, like clockwork, in September and October. That’s when the air starts to get cooler and drier, and the skin begins  to dry out.

Summer’s hot air holds a lot of moisture. As temperatures cool in the autumn months, the air gets drier. When the relative humidity of the air is lower than approximately 40 percent, skin begins to lose its moisture to the air. Additionally, when we begin to use our heaters, we turn cold dry air into even drier warm air, which pulls water out of our skin like a sponge. Winter itch also occurs in the middle of summer in Florida. This is because of the abundant use of air conditioners, which dry out indoor air.

No one really knows exactly why dry skin causes an itching sensation. One theory suggests that the micro-cracks and fissures in dry skin have sharp edges. These edges may stimulate the nerve endings in the skin, triggering an itchy sensation.

Regardless of how dry skin makes you itch, I’m sure you will agree that the sensation is not comfortable! Here is one approach to how you can treat winter itch at home, along with some advice about when you should visit your dermatologist.

There are three factors that contribute to winter itch. One factor is dry air made even drier by either air-conditioning or heating. The other two main factors are over-bathing and the use of harsh soaps. Long baths or showers leech out the molecules in your skin that hold moisture. Then, when you use a harsh soap, it de-fats your skin even more by stripping your skin of its natural oils.

My recommendations for alleviating winter itch are simple:

  • Limit your bath or shower to less than 10 minutes per day.
  • Pat your skin dry with a soft towel.
  • Make sure to apply a moisturizer while your skin is still damp. This will help seal in the moisture.

The right moisturizer is a personal choice depending on the texture you prefer–oily, creamy, or greasy. In my experience Almay®, Clinique®, Neutrogena®, Aveeno®, and Cetaphil® seem to be good quality brands. If you are prone to acne, look for a moisturizer that has non-comedogenic written on the label.

You should know that skin dry enough to cause winter itch may not even look dry. At the other extreme, dry skin areas may occasionally be pink or red. This is a sign of inflammation. In this case, a simple over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone cream may help reduce the inflammation. Keep in mind that an over-the-counter cream may not be strong enough to be effective. If you’ve tried everything (using a mild soap, moisturizing, taking shorter showers) and you still itch, you should probably see your dermatologist for further evaluation and treatment.

Winter itch occurs more frequently in older people. Sometimes itching in the elderly is the result of a drug reaction, a skin disease, or an internal illness, but patients and their doctors shouldn’t jump to conclusions because it’s quite possible that the itch is caused by plain, garden-variety winter itch. Sometimes no cause can be detected, and a patient may be given the diagnosis of senile pruritus, where senile simply means old and pruritus means itch. Because most people have a negative connotation of the word senile, senile pruritus has been re-named Willan’s itch.
One of the most curious symptoms of winter itch in the elderly may be itching provoked by water contact in the bath or shower; no one really knows why this happens. In some individuals, itching provoked by water contact – called aquagenic pruritus – may be a sign of a blood disease such as polycythemia vera.

It is important to know that itching has many causes, ranging from skin diseases (such as eczema, psoriasis, and scabies) to internal conditions such as hyperthyroidism, kidney or liver disease, and some blood-related diseases. It’s critical for you to see your dermatologist or family doctor if you have any itching that lasts more than 6 weeks or so without a clear diagnosis. Your doctor can usually determine the cause of your itching – the first step toward treatment and relief!

Published on 11/03/2010 | Last updated on 01/03/2019