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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Staving Off Winter Itch

By Debra Jaliman, MD

Have you suffered from winter itch before? Then autumn is the right time to start taking precautions.

Many people don’t realize that winter itch is a form of eczema, one that tends to run in families. If your parents have it, chances are that you and your children will develop it, too. Even babies can suffer from winter itch.

It’s barely the middle of October, and I’m already starting to see patients with this kind of eczema. That’s because even a few chilly days are enough to start the cycle. The skin gets dry very quickly, especially on the legs and the hands. Dry skin leads to itch, which leads to scratching, which leads to the raised red bumps of eczema and in many cases infection. The more people scratch their skin, the worse it will get.

Even if you are genetically prone to eczema, you can still take steps to protect your skin which may prevent eczema or at least ensure only a mild case.

First of all, moisturize your skin. This is the crucial step, because you want to keep the skin barrier intact. Even if it has turned warm again outside, now is the time to start using the most effective moisturizers you can find. Drugstores sell inexpensive yet highly effective petrolatum-based ointments and creams that are heavy enough to protect the skin. It is a very good idea to use these or a moisturizing lotion right after your bath or shower, when the skin is still damp. Oils work well, too.

For daytime wear, when you may want to use something a little lighter and less greasy, look for creams and lotions that contain hyaluronic acid, shea butter, avocado oil, or glycerin. Dimethicone, a silicone-based ingredient, works for many, but not for those whose skin is prone to acne, since it can increase breakouts.

Hands contain comparatively few oil glands and tend to dry and crack easily. The use of those alcohol-based sanitizers doesn’t help, either. Not only do they dry skin more than good old soap and water, they aren’t as effective at killing viruses and bacteria. Actually, you don’t even have to use soap, which is undeniably drying, to wash your hands. Products marketed as gentle cleansers for sensitive skins work beautifully; carry a small bottle in your bag and use it instead of those scented soaps in public restrooms.

In fact, stay away from scented soaps, period, since they tend to irritate the skin. As for deodorant soaps, they are absolutely terrible for anybody prone to winter itch – ditch them immediately! Take shorter showers and baths, and try to use a moisturizing body wash or a super-fatted soap. If your skin is very sensitive, you can use the same gentle facial cleanser I recommend for hands.

Autumn is also the time to start using a humidifier. Even slight drops in air humidity are reflected in the skin, so start using one now. Don’t wait until the snow is actually piling up outside.

Remember, when it comes to winter itch, it’s very important to be proactive. If you start taking precautions before the cold weather really sets in, you may not even get winter itch at all this year.

Posted by: Debra Jaliman, MD at 10:13 am

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