Warning: Winter Dry Skin Can Lead to Itchy Skin (Winter Itch)

Cold, dry air during the winter months is the principal source of low indoor humidities that exert drying stresses on skin, which in turn increase the likelihood of dry skin— often referred to as “Winter Dry Skin”.  Dry skin may be an aggravation to deal with, but when it also results in itchy skin, or “Winter Itch” as its called, the motivation for seeking relief grows dramatically.

Dry skin (i.e., xerosis) is recognized as a leading cause of itchy skin (i.e., pruritis) among the elderly (Garibyan et al., 2013), although there are also a variety of other causes, ranging from medications to comorbidities involving kidney and liver function (Cohen et al. 2012). Consequently, as wintertime drying stresses increase, the incidence of dry skin among seniors is expected to rise as well, along with complaints of itchy skin.

Dry Skin and Itchy Skin

Long and Marks (1992) reported that the severity of itchy skin in a sample of elderly patients was directly correlated to the degree of observed skin dryness. To further examine the relationship between dry skin and pruritus, I used Google Trends to examine search trends for the terms "winter dry skin" and "winter itch" in the United States. As the graph below shows, both search terms track each other over a five-year period and their linear correlation coefficient is 0.94, where 1 equals perfect correlation or tracking. 

Winter Itch Relief

Based on the link between skin dryness and itchiness, it is reasonable to assume that increasing skin hydration (e.g., via application of a moisturizer) will reduce both skin dryness and itchy skin. Indeed, Cristaudo et al. (2015) found that the topical application of a moisturizing cream to fifty elderly patients with varying degrees of xerosis for 28 days substantially reduced their dry skin as well as itching.  But even though this particular dry-skin treatment approach for itchy skin was successful, it is important to seek personalized care from a dermatologist regarding treatment of pruritus because there are other causes for this condition.

Key Points

  • Winter dry skin and winter itch track each other as indoor drying stresses on skin change during the winter months.
  • The primary population at risk for "winter itch" consists of senior citizens due to their increased susceptibility to skin drying stressors caused by changes in skin composition with age.
  • Maintaining healthy skin hydration is an essential goal in reducing the occurrence of dry skin as well as related skin itchiness.

References

Cristaudo, A, Francesconi L, Ambrifi M, Frasca M, Cavallotti C, and Sperduti E. 2015. “Efficacy of an Emollient Dermoprotective Cream in the Treatment of Elderly Skin Affected by Xerosis.” Giornale Italiano Di Dermatologia E Venereologia : Organo Ufficiale, Societa Italiana Di Dermatologia E Sifilografia 150: 297–302.

Cohen, Kenneth R., Jerry Frank, Rebecca L. Salbu, and Igor Israel. 2012. “Pruritus in the Elderly.” Pharmacy and Therapeutics 37: 227–39.

Garibyan, Lilit, Albert S. Chiou, and Sarina B. Elmariah. 2013. “Advanced Aging Skin and Itch: Addressing an Unmet Need.” Dermatologic Therapy 26: 92–103.

Long, C. C., and R. Marks. 1992. “Stratum Corneum Changes in Patients with Senile Pruritus.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 27 (4): 560–64.