Winter Eczema (Winter Itch)
If you’re reading this, chances are you have winter eczema or someone you know and care about has it. You are probably interested in knowing what it is and what causes it, but you definitely want to know what do about it. I, like you, developed an interest in learning more about this condition because two of my favorite people suffer from it all winter, every winter. Here’s what I found out.
What is winter eczema?
Winter eczema was first described in 1907 as eczema craquelé (a French term meaning “marred with cracks”). It’s also known as asteatotic (dry scaling of skin) eczema. If it gets bad enough, usually from scratching, the skin can actually harden and thicken, a process known as lichenification. We won’t even cover the part where you scratch until you bleed and get an infection. It does happen, but we plan on halting the process way before it happens.
What causes winter eczema?
The actual underlying root cause of winter eczema as well as other forms of eczema is unknown. That said, there are genetic factors and triggers that can bring on winter eczema. We will cover the triggers later.
Winter eczema occurs when the outer layer of the skin dries out. This possibly initiated due to reduced free fatty acid in the sebum (oil produced by glands beneath the skin) of sufferers. A significant decrease in free fatty acids in the skin’s outer layer is present in people with winter eczema. Sebum complete with its complement of fatty acids acts as a water modulator in the skin. When fatty acids are in short supply, water loss through the skin can be 75% greater than that of a healthy person.
A small but inconclusive testament that the sebum isn’t doing its job for winter eczema sufferers is where the condition usually manifests; that being the parts of the body with the fewest sebaceous glands such as the arms, hands and legs.
What triggers winter eczema?
Winter is the time when indoor humidity is reduced by heating. Dry cold air is also a factor with emphasis on the dry part. Once the skin becomes dry, it itches. Once it’s scratched, further irritation occurs. More irritation leads to more scratching and on it goes.
What to do about winter eczema.
The bad news is you probably aren’t going to rid yourself of the propensity to have winter eczema flare ups. The good news is you can do something about them before they occur. When winter approaches, implement a prevention program before you have a flare up.
- Avoid hot showers and baths (If you’re a spa nut like me, make sure you slather the moisturizer on afterward. Just don’t forget to do it!!! Wear your jar of cream on a chain around your neck if you must.)
- Avoid harsh soaps. Use body washes with moisturizing cream.
- Don’t scratch. If your skin starts to itch, run, don’t walk to treat it with a soothing cream to relieve the itching. Jojoba oil straight or in a cream is great, olive oil and Shea butter are also good options.) By scratching, you make your skin vulnerable to infection and more vulnerable to contact allergens.
- Keep cotton fabric next to your skin. Avoid wool to skin contact.
- If your house is dry, humidify it. A potpourri simmering on the stove is a wonderful way to humidify your home and keep it smelling good.
- Avoid applying alcohol or other products containing drying agents to your skin.
- Honey is a natural humectant (helps hold moisture to the skin). A cream made with honey can be a huge help. We are particularly fond of creams made with manuka honey products for this purpose.
- Apply moisturizing cream two or three times a day to the areas of your skin affected most by winter eczema.
Now go have fun and relax.
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