Itchy Skin in Winter: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Dr. Menachof, MD, has specialized in conditions around the head, throat, ear, nose, neck and face for over 20 years, and was the first to bring sublingual allergy drops to Colorado in 2005. He has been recognized as a Fellow by multiple academies, named one of America’s Top Facial Plastic Surgeons continually since 2003 and is featured in multiple national publications.

Experiencing itchy skin in winter? Learn more about what causes this and how you can get your itchy skin treated in Denver.

With the onset of cold, winter months come a myriad of health issues that aren’t limited to sniffles and sneezes. Not only does our immune system take a toll, but the largest organ in our body takes a beating too — our skin!

Have you ever noticed your skin is dry and itchy in the winter? Maybe you even have scaly, red skin after being outside in the cold. While dry skin isn’t serious, it can be very uncomfortable. Especially when it leads to cracking and bleeding skin. If you’re experiencing all of these symptoms — itching, dryness, cracking, and bleeding — you may have pruritus hiemalis, or winter itch. This skin disease is typically triggered by cold, dry weather and often appears on your legs.

While it may seem an inevitable part of the season changes, winter itch can be prevented and treated. With some easy at-home changes and routines, you can take care of your skin and perhaps enjoy winter just a little bit more!

Winter dry skinSymptoms of Winter Itch

Winter itch can affect any part of the body except the hands, feet, face, or scalp. It’s most commonly found in patches on your legs — the inner thighs, knee pits, calves, and ankles – and seems to flare up more at night and when you change clothes. While winter itch is sometimes referred to as “winter rash,” it’s not actually accompanied by a rash, unlike some other common skin diseases.

Symptoms of winter itch include:

  • Itching
  • Dryness
  • Redness
  • Scaling
  • Cracks in the skin
  • Bleeding

What are the Risk Factors for Winter Itch?

Anyone can experience winter itch, but some people are more prone than others. Some factors increase your chances of winter itch, including:

Age

As we get older, our skin becomes thinner and drier, depleting the skin’s moisture and ability to defend against cold and dry weather.

Pre-Existing Medical Conditions

If you already struggle with conditions like sensitive skin, eczema, psoriasis, or dry skin, the cold, dry months of winter can exacerbate these conditions. Other medical conditions can also cause dry skin, like brain injuries, diabetes, or malnutrition.

What Are the Causes of Winter Itch?

We don’t know the exact cause of winter itch, but we do know several factors that contribute to its onset, including:

Weather

Cold, dry air sucks moisture out of the top layers of your skin, leaving your skin depleted and raw. Winter air is typically cold and dry, hence the name “winter itch.” However, some people may experience winter itch in the summer months, if they’re exposed to cold, dry air from air-conditioning units.

Water

This may be surprising, but too much water exposure can dry out your skin, especially hot water. It strips your skin of natural oils, causing dryness and redness, leaving your skin irritated. Long hot showers and baths, along with long periods of handwashing, can have a negative impact on your skin.

Chemicals

Certain soaps contain chemicals that irritate the skin and strip it of its natural oils. That’s why frequent bathing and hand washing can cause dry skin. Chlorine can also dry out your skin, so swimmers are more prone to itchy, scaly skin.

Heat

Using heat in your home can reduce moisture in the air, and sitting close to space heaters can strip your body of moisture.

Certain “Treatments”

Some over-the-counter skin treatments claim to alleviate dry, itchy skin. However, treatments that contain witch hazel or rubbing alcohol do the exact opposite. That’s why it’s important to know what you’re putting on your body and how it affects your skin.

Diagnosing Winter Itch

It can be difficult to diagnose winter itch because symptoms are similar to other skin conditions, like dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis. Pay attention to when symptoms arise and what makes them worse — a detailed history and careful examination are important in ruling out other skin diseases.

How to Prevent Winter Itch

Winter itch prevention is all about moisturizing and protecting your skin, especially during the winter months. Here are a few ways you can prevent winter itch:

  • Buy a thick moisturizer
  • Moisturize frequently throughout the day
  • Minimize exposure to cold air
  • Use skin protection like gloves, scarves, and hats
  • Avoid really hot water when showering and handwashing
  • Try to limit hot water exposure
  • Gently pat skin dry after showering (instead of rubbing)
  • Avoid “home remedies” that include rubbing alcohol or witch hazel
  • Use sunscreen during the winter
  • Eat foods rich in omega-3 and vitamins A, C, and E
  • Drink plenty of water

Three Ways to Treat Winter Itch

There are several treatment options for winter itch, and often a combination of these will help you get rid of dry, red, itchy skin.

  1. Take a warm bath – A warm bath, with a quarter cup of baking soda mixed in, can help relieve itchy skin. Try doing this once a day, before bed (and remember to moisturize after!). Only use soap on the parts of your body that really need it, and use a mild cleanser or soap-free product that won’t strip your skin of essential oils.
  2. Use moisturizing creams – Apply moisturizer often — after bathing and anytime your skin feels dry or itchy. Use a thick, fragrance-free cream, and keep a small tube with you at all times. Avoid over-the-counter itch-suppressing creams, as these contain chemicals that can worsen winter itch. Instead, use an over-the-counter hydrocortisone 1% cream alongside your moisturizer to help alleviate itchiness.
  3. Choose your clothing wisely – Wear lightweight clothes like silk and cotton, and avoid skin-irritating fabrics like flannel and wool. Use a fragrance-free laundry detergent to reduce exposure to irritants.

Get Help

If you’ve tried these at-home remedies and still haven’t found relief or your symptoms have worsened, it’s time to make an appointment with a dermatologist.

Book a consultation.