What Is Winter Itch?

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Winter itch, also known as pruritus hiemalis, is a type of dermatitis (skin irritation or inflammation) brought on by cold weather and irritated by other factors. You may have experienced winter itch in the past if you noticed dry, red, scaly skin after being out in the cold. Small cracks in the skin and bleeding can also occur. 

Fortunately, winter itch can be prevented or at least treated in those who are at higher risk. Frequent and aggressive moisturizing can help, so can a humidifier, lukewarm water, and more. 

Woman scratching arm

Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Symptoms

Winter itch is sometimes referred to as winter rash, but it is actually not a rash at all. Winter itch is brought on by cold, dry air that pulls moisture out of your skin. It also does not cause a rash. Skin affected by winter itch generally appears healthy but slightly dry. Winter itch occurs in the fall and winter, and clears up in the summer months.

It can affect any part of the body, but is most commonly found on the legs. Typical sites are the inner surface of the thighs, above and behind the knees, on the calves, and around the ankles. It does not affect the hands, feet, face, or scalp.

Common symptoms of winter itch include:

  • Dryness
  • Redness
  • Scaling
  • Itching 
  • Small cracks in the skin
  • Bleeding 

Risk Factors

Winter itch can happen to anyone, but some are more at risk than others. If you have a history of sensitive skin, be sure to use extra moisturizer to protect your skin during the cold months. 

Age

As we age, our skin tends to thin and become drier. This puts old people at higher risk for developing irritated, dry skin in the winter. Environmental factors like temperature can further exacerbate that problem. Research has shown that cold air with low humidity during the winter months can deplete the skin's moisture and cause dry skin in the elderly.

Pre-Existing Dry Skin

If you have dry skin, there is a greater chance that you will develop winter itch. Chronic skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can be exacerbated by cold, dry air. Talk with your dermatologist about how to protect your skin and treat any flare-ups during the winter.

Causes

The exact cause of winter itch is unknown. We know it is triggered by cold, dry air. While that usually means the weather is responsible, other factors can contribute to your skin being susceptible to winter itch as well. 

Weather

Cold weather causes or exacerbates dry skin because of the lack of moisture in the air. Cold air is dry air, and that dryness can pull the moisture out of the top layers of your skin. It’s also possible to experience winter itch in warmer months if you're spending time indoors. The air coming out of an air conditioner is often dryer than winter air, leading to more skin dryness and irritation. 

Moisture

After spending time outdoors in freezing temperatures, nothing sounds better than coming home to a long, hot shower. Unfortunately, that hot water will leave your skin more irritated than before. Hot water strips your skin of its natural oils, causing dryness and redness. This is why it’s so helpful to apply a moisturizer after showering or washing your hands. Your skin is especially dry, and needs to have that moisture replenished. 

Chemicals

Exposure to chemicals can also contribute to dry skin in the winter months. Frequent handwashing is an important safety measure to protect you from viruses, but is hard on your skin. The chemicals in certain soaps strip moisture from your hands, leaving them more at risk of redness, dryness, and cracking. The chlorine in swimming pools is another example of chemicals that dry out the skin. 

Eat Your Way to Healthier Skin

One simple way to support your skin during the winter is by eating a healthy diet. What we eat affects the makeup of our skin cells, and the more nutritious foods we eat, the better they function. To fight dry winter skin, keep a water bottle with you at all times. When you are well hydrated, your skin has access to more of the moisture it needs. Incorporate some water-rich foods like:

  • Cucumbers
  • Watermelon
  • Celery
  • Soup broth

Next, add more foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Examples include fish, flaxseed, and walnuts. Omega-3 fats help cells hold on to moisture. Adding protein to your diet will help damaged cells repair themselves; try fish, poultry, lentils, and low-fat dairy. Finally, vitamins A, C, and E are all known to reduce inflammation in the body, helping to ease pain and redness in the skin. Reach for fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds for better skin.

Diagnosis

A dry skin rash can sometimes be mistaken for other skin conditions like dermatitis, eczema, or psoriasis. To know if it’s winter itch, pay careful attention to when it started and what makes it worse. If you see a dermatologist, they will take a detailed history to determine if the cold, dry air is to blame for your symptoms. 

Prevention

Preventing winter itch involves helping your skin retain as much moisture as possible. Start by investing in a thick moisturizer to use frequently throughout the day. Be sure to moisturize any time you wash your hands or shower. Using a humidifier in your bedroom at night could also help. 

Minimize exposure to cold air with proper protection any time you’re outside. Always wear gloves and a scarf and moisturize afterward. 

Avoid scalding hot water in the shower or during handwashing. Try to limit showers to five minutes or less, and turn the tap to lukewarm instead of hot when washing your hands. After getting out of the shower, gently pat your skin dry rather than rubbing it with the towel. 

The Wrong Treatment Can Make It Worse

Many over-the-counter products and natural remedies for winter itchy may sound safe to try, but they could leave your skin more irritated. Rubbing alcohol and witch hazel both give the appearance of moisturized skin when first applied, but quickly dry out your skin once they dry. Avoid these home remedies and talk with your dermatologist if you’re having trouble getting your winter skin under control. 

Treatment

Treatment options for winter itch include:

  • Bathe in warm water prior to sleep. Some people report a benefit from the addition of sodium bicarbonate to the water (a quarter of a cup of baking soda swished around in a full bath).
  • Moisturizing creams are the mainstay of treatment. Apply one after bathing and whenever the skin feels itchy or dry.
  • Wear lightweight clothing such as silk, linen, and muslin because certain fabrics like flannel and woollen wear can exacerbate symptoms of winter itch.
  • Avoid irritating fabrics.
  • Use topical corticosteroids to treat secondary dermatitis.
  • Capsaicin cream can be useful for localized areas of persistent itch.

While they sound helpful, it’s best to avoid over-the-counter itch-suppressing creams; they are often made with chemicals that could make winter itch worse. 

Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize

The best way to both treat and prevent winter itch is to moisturize your skin frequently. Cold, dry air constantly pulls moisture out of your skin, so the goal is to outpace that drying process with added moisture from lotions and creams.

Opt for a thick cream without added fragrances since creams with strong fragrances could be irritating to sensitive skin. If you are spending time outdoors, keep a small hand cream with you. 

Outcome

Winter itch received its name because it usually only occurs in the winter months. Once the weather starts to warm up and the air becomes a bit more humid, your skin should return to normal. You may experience a single bout of winter itch or it could last all winter. 

Winter itch has a high rate of recurrence because winter comes around every year. While some will only experience it once or twice in their lives, others will need to address it every year. As soon as the weather starts to cool, start moisturizing regularly. Starting a regular lotion or cream regimen before your skin shows signs of winter itch can be helpful in preventing or minimizing the dryness and irritation. 

Complications

Winter itch is uncomfortable on its own and can also lead to other problems. The dry skin that results from this condition is often very itchy, which can lead to scratching. If you find yourself scratching your dry skin, you’ll be more at risk for bleeding and infection. 

While dry winter itch is frustrating on its own, it can also exacerbate underlying conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, involves patches of red, scaly, itchy skin. It is usually caused by sensitive skin and can flare up when exposed to cold, dry air. Psoriasis is an immune condition characterized by thick patches of itchy, silvery, dry skin. Exposure to the cold can worsen the symptoms.

A Word From Verywell 

Winter itch is uncomfortable but treatable. If you have been moisturizing frequently and cutting back on hot showers, you will hopefully see an improvement very soon. If not, it’s time to talk with your dermatologist about other ways to protect your skin. The cracks that form from winter itch can lead to infection and pain, so it’s important to address it early.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Penn Medicine. The Winter Itch: What Causes Dry Skin, and What You Can Do About It. Updated January 30, 2017.

  2. University of Iowa Health Care. Winter dry skin. Updated November 2018.

  3. DermNet NZ. Winter itch. Updated August 2018.

  4. Garibyan L, Chiou AS, Elmariah SB. Advanced aging skin and itch: addressing an unmet need. Dermatol Ther. 2013 Mar-Apr;26(2):92-103. doi: 10.1111/dth.12029

  5. U.S. News. A Nutritionist’s Guide to Fighting Dry Skin in Winter. Updated January 3, 2020.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing. Top 5 fixes for itchy winter skin. Updated February 2014. 

  7. Wexner Medical Center. Avoid ‘winter itch’ -- and know when to see a doctor. Updated November 29, 2017.

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