Many people experience dry skin in the winter. For the 31.6 million American adults living with eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis), cold weather leads to dry skin and can bring severe or painful itching, scratching, and irritation.
Eczema flare-ups — periods during which symptoms worsen — are common in the winter. In the colder months, dropping temperatures and dry air can aggravate the symptoms of eczema, including dry, raw, cracked, and itchy skin.
Luckily, there are ways you can help manage irritated skin and flare-ups during the winter months.
Many members of MyEczemaTeam have talked about the effect of winter weather on their skin. One member’s comment reflects the sentiments shared by many others: “My face is irritated and getting flaky and itchy. It hurts. I hate the winter. It’s so extra dry.”
Winter dryness can cause dry and scaly patches on the skin, severe itchiness that can make it difficult to sleep, and small bumps of fluid that may leak when scratched, causing open wounds called lesions.
During winter, the cold, dry air can cause people’s eczema to flare up. Eczema damages the skin barrier and reduces the skin’s capability to cope with changing weather. With the skin barrier already compromised, its defenses against allergens, germs, and loss of moisture are weakened.
But what particular factors cause flare-ups in eczema symptoms during the winter? Research conducted around the subject has revealed several climatic and weather conditions that trigger or worsen atopic dermatitis. These factors include the following circumstances.
Dramatic changes in weather or sudden drops in temperature — like walking into a warm house on a cold winter’s day — can cause itchiness, even in people without eczema.
During the cold seasons, the level of moisture in the air drops, causing dryness as the skin loses moisture to the atmosphere. People spend more time inside during the winter where hot, dry air from heaters also pulls moisture from the skin into the air.
Lack of sun exposure during the winter can lead to lower vitamin D levels. There is evidence that lower vitamin D levels may be associated with eczema. However, more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between sunlight and eczema symptoms.
Seasonal changes in pollen counts can also trigger eczema. Many people with eczema also have seasonal allergies and asthma — these are known together as the atopic triad.
There are several steps you can take to manage eczema flare-ups during the winter. Your dermatologist is also an important resource for help with winter eczema.
Soaking in a hot bath can be appealing during the colder months. However, too much heat can strip the skin of its natural oils and fats, disrupting its natural moisture balance. Excessive exposure to water can actually dry out the skin, which may worsen symptoms during flares.
Keep the following tips in mind to prevent bathing from drying out your skin during a flare-up:
You may want to try the “soak-and-seal” method for extra moisture after bathing. Here’s how:
People with eczema may need to moisturize more often during the winter, especially before going outdoors. Thick, oil-based creams or ointments may be better than cream-based moisturizers. Ointments and thicker creams will help prevent water loss from your skin into the atmosphere. Your doctor can help you identify products to try.
One member described their moisturizing routine: “I sat on the couch last winter with Vanicream next to me, applying so much I thought I would never feel better, but it paid off. My skin finally got better. Now I know that a good lotion is a very important part of my skin treatment.”
Another member offered tips for eczema on the face: “Try steaming your face, and after that, use the cream prescribed by the doctor. Use a textured towel to apply the cream to your face, and the flakes should slough [off]. Don’t use too much pressure, as that will cause irritation. Try doing that twice a week.”
If you find that your lips also become extra dry during the winter months, protect them with petroleum jelly or an emollient ointment.
Make sure your skin is well-protected before going outdoors. You can use scarves, hats, and gloves. Avoid wearing woolen fabrics — they tend to scratch, which may worsen itchiness, especially during a flare.
Layering several articles of cotton clothing rather than one heavy layer can help protect the skin. This strategy will allow you to remove layers if you become too hot. The same goes for bedding: use multiple layers that you can peel off or add one by one as needed, as opposed to one thick duvet or quilt.
Low winter temperatures create a less humid (drier) atmosphere. Even when the weather is wet, humidity remains low during winter. Add to this the use of artificial heating, and your skin can quickly lose moisture, potentially worsening eczema symptoms.
Humidifiers can help add moisture to the surrounding air. Although there is no scientific evidence to support that they can help improve eczema, some people have reported that humidifiers have helped manage their symptoms. One MyEczemaTeam member wrote, “I bought a humidifier a year ago, and it has helped me a lot. I noticed the difference immediately. You can also put a drop of lavender in the humidifier — it helps you relax.”
Make sure to follow the directions for properly cleaning a humidifier.
With small changes, you can help your child living with eczema feel more comfortable during the winter.
It’s important that you continue with your child’s usual skin care routine when winter sets in. Bathe them as often as recommended by their dermatologist, and keep the water warm — not hot. After bathing, apply any prescribed medications as directed and moisturize immediately on the rest of the body.
As well as after bathing, apply moisturizer to your child after any showers and hand-washing and before bed to make sure their skin stays hydrated. You may also need to use a thicker cream or ointment than usual. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers dry out the skin, so encourage kids to use moisturizer on their hands after washing or sanitizing.
If your child’s skin feels especially dry during the winter, consult their dermatologist about occlusion. This process involves applying eczema medicine or moisturizer and covering it with plastic or a bandage, which can help increase the absorption of medicine and moisturizer into very dry skin.
Make sure your child dresses appropriately for the winter air by covering as much of their skin as possible. Use natural, breathable fabrics, such as 100 percent cotton. Avoid wool and synthetic fibers, which tend to irritate the skin. As with adults, children should be dressed in loose-fitting layers of clothing.
Maintain a comfortable environment by adjusting the thermostat to prevent overheating and keeping the air humid by using a humidifier or bowl of water in each room. Avoid letting a child warm their skin on fireplaces, heating vents, and radiators, as this can lead to drastic temperature changes, which can cause or worsen itchiness.
There are more than 34,000 members on MyEczemaTeam, many of whom are trying new ways to make themselves more comfortable in the coming winter months. Join MyEczemaTeam today to give and receive advice, share what’s on your mind, and enjoy the company of people who care and understand what you’re going through.
Have you found any strategies that help you manage flare-ups during the winter? Comment below or start a conversation on your Activities page.