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Dry Skin and Itching

Cause

Dry skin is a common problem that can occur at any age. When you have dry skin, your skin may be rough, or scaly or flaky, and it may itch.

There are many causes of dry skin. As you age, your skin produces less of the natural oil that helps your skin keep its moisture. Dry indoor air can cause your skin to become dry. So can living in climates with low humidity. Indoor heating or air conditioning can dry out the air inside your home. Bathing too often may also dry your skin, especially if you use hot water for your baths or showers.

Prevention

Practice good skin hygiene to keep your skin healthy. Here are some tips if you notice your skin getting too dry:

  • Shower or bathe in lukewarm water. Don't shower too often—just when you're dirty or sweaty.
  • Avoid washing with soap during every bath. When soap is needed, use a gentle, nondrying product, such as Aveeno, Dove, or Neutrogena. Use soap only on the underarms, groin, and feet, and rinse immediately afterward.
  • Pat your skin dry after a bath or shower. Apply a moisturizer right away. Moisturizers include Aquaphor, Eucerin, and Purpose.
  • Apply moisturizer several times a day. Use moisturizer on your hands, especially if you must wear gloves often or if the air is dry where you live.
  • Consider using a humidifier if the air inside your home is very dry.
  • Use sunscreen to protect your skin when you are outside.
  • Protect your lips with lipstick or a lip balm, such as Chapstick.

Part of good skin hygiene is also making sure the skin between your fingers and toes doesn't get too dry or cracked. Take care of rashes or fungal infections, like athlete's foot. If they don't clear up with nonprescription medicines, see your doctor to prevent more serious skin problems.

Home Treatment

In addition to the prevention guidelines, the following home treatment suggestions may help make you comfortable if you have dry skin.

  • Look for a moisturizer that is a skin barrier repair moisturizer, like CeraVe or TriCeram. Using this type of moisturizer can help heal dry skin.
  • For very dry hands, try this for a night: Apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly, and wear thin cotton gloves to bed. (Dry feet may benefit from similar treatment.)
  • If dry, brittle nails are a problem, use lotion on your nails as well.
  • Take care of your nails, keeping your fingernails and toenails trimmed and smooth. Long or sharp nails can accidentally scrape your skin.

Avoid scratching, which damages the skin. If itching is a problem, try the following:

  • Keep the itchy area well moisturized. Dry skin may make itching worse.
  • Try an oatmeal bath to help relieve itching.
    • Wrap 1 cup of oatmeal in a cotton cloth and boil as you would to cook it. Use this as a sponge, and bathe in tepid water without soap.
    • You may also try a commercial product, such as Aveeno Colloidal Oatmeal bath.
  • Try a nonprescription 1% hydrocortisone cream for small itchy areas.
    • Use the cream very sparingly on the face or genitals.
    • If itching is severe, your doctor may prescribe a stronger cream.
    • If you are using this cream for larger areas like your arms or legs, you may want to mix some of this cream with a moisturizer before putting it on your skin.
  • Try a nonprescription oral antihistamine. Examples include chlorpheniramine (such as Chlor-Trimeton), diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl), and loratadine (such as Claritin).
  • Cut your nails short or wear gloves at night to prevent scratching.
  • Wear loose and comfortable clothing. Avoid scratchy fabrics next to your skin.

When to Call a Doctor

Call your doctor if any of the following symptoms are present:

  • You itch all over your body but there is no obvious cause or rash.
  • Itching is so bad that you cannot sleep, and home treatment is not helping.
  • Your skin is badly broken from scratching.
  • You see signs of infection, including:
    • Increased pain, swelling, redness, warmth, or tenderness.
    • Red streaks extending from the area.
    • Discharge of pus.
    • Fever of 100.4 °F (38 °C) or higher with no other cause.
    • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin.

Other Places To Get Help

Organization

American Academy of Family Physicians: FamilyDoctor.org
P.O. Box 11210
Shawnee Mission, KS 66207-1210
Phone: 1-800-274-2237
Fax: (913) 906-6075
Web Address: www.familydoctor.org
 

The website FamilyDoctor.org is sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians. It offers information on adult and child health conditions and healthy living. There are topics on medicines, doctor visits, physical and mental health issues, parenting, and more.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Baumann L (2012). Cosmetics and skin care in dermatology. In LA Goldman et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 8th ed., vol. 1, pp. 3009–3020. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Garg A, Bernhard JD (2010). Pruritus. In MG Lebwohl et al., eds., Treatment of Skin Disease: Comprehensive Therapeutic Strategies, 3rd ed., pp. 608–614. Edinburgh: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Habif TP, et al. (2011). Maintaining the skin barrier. In Skin Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment, 3rd ed., pp. 2–5. Edinburgh: Saunders.
  • Hall JC (2010). Pruritic dermatoses. In JC Hall et al., eds., Sauer's Manual of Skin Diseases, 10th ed., pp. 124–130. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Last Revised November 7, 2013

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