Dry, itchy skin is no fun. In fact, it’s irritating. You itch. You scratch. The cycle repeats itself. You long for relief.
Most cases are mild and go away — with or without treatment. But when it persists for more than a couple of weeks, should you be concerned? If it’s keeping you up at night, should you get it checked?
The answer is yes. Fortunately, your doctor can help you identify the problem and provide you with any necessary treatment to bring you relief. Treatment for dry, itch skin varies. It depends on the cause.
“It could be due to something as simple as dry skin, which is common,” he says. “It could be a symptom of a skin disease, such as psoriasis or dermatitis. It could also be the result of an allergic reaction. It could even be a side effect to medication you might be taking.”
Your primary or family doctor can help you get to the root of the problem. They would ask you about your symptoms and examine your skin. They would refer you to a dermatologist or skin specialist if necessary.
“It’s always best to check with your doctor if you have concerns. Most causes of dry, itchy skin have specific treatments that your doctor can help you with,” Dr. Jacob says.
Many skin conditions cause itching. Dry skin is one of the most common. It is also one of the easiest to address. It is marked by scaling, itching and cracking, usually in the hands, arms and legs.
Dry skin occurs for a variety of environmental reasons. It is more common during fall and winter months when humidity levels are relatively low.
Dry skin occurs also for a variety of internal reasons. Older adults are more prone to develop dry skin. As we age, our skin gets thinner and drier. Frequent bathing or showering with hot water or frequent hot tub use also raises the risk of dry skin.
The most common way to relieve dry skin is by using moisturizers, which come in the form of creams and lotions. They help restore moistness into the skin. Thicker moisturizers tend to be more effective for dry itchy, skin.
“A moisturizer might be all you need to relieve itching. If a moisturizer does not help enough, you can try an anti-itch cream or ointment,” Dr. Jacob says.
Home remedies can help address dry, itchy sensitive skin and restore moisture, including:
- Avoid bathing or showering in hot water; use warm water
- Keep bathing or showering to 10 minutes or less
- Use a moisturizing soap
- Apply moisturizer right after bathing or showering
- Pat, not rub, wet skin dry with a soft towel
- Avoid scratching dry skin patches
- Use a humidifier at home in your bedroom
In some cases, dry, itchy skin can be a sign of dermatitis, which is treated with medication.
Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of this skin disease. It is often referred to as eczema. Eczema also refers to a group of conditions that cause the skin to become red, inflamed and itchy.
Atopic dermatitis often runs in families with a history of eczema, asthma or hay fever. It usually occurs in infancy or early childhood, but it can also strike adults. Most often it affects the face, neck, hands, feet, inner elbows and back of knees.
Flare ups occur when the immune system overreacts to an allergen or irritant inside or outside the body.
Contact dermatitis is marked by a red, skin rash. It happens when the skin touches something that irritates it or causes an allergic reaction. The most common types are irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis.
Common triggers for allergic contact dermatitis include metals, such as nickel in costume jewelry, fragrances, rubber or latex ingredients.
Common triggers for irritant contact dermatitis include laundry detergents, soaps, anti-acne creams or anti-aging creams, cleaners and chemicals.
Treatment for eczema may include over-the-counter remedies, prescription topical medications, including corticosteroids, light therapy, immunosuppressants and biologic drugs.
According to the National Eczema Association, managing flares should include:
- Knowing your triggers so you can avoid them
- Implementing a daily bathing and moisturizing routine
- Using over-the-counter topical ointments and prescription medications consistently and as directed
Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes red, scaly and often itchy patches on the skin. The immune system and genetics play major roles development of psoriasis. It occurs when an overactive immune system targets healthy skin cells, causing a buildup of lesions.
Plaque psoriasis is the most common type. It appears as raised, scaly patches of inflamed skin. Triggers include infections, stress, dry weather conditions, certain medications, cuts, scratches and sunburns.
Treatments include topical creams, light therapy (also known as phototherapy), and oral and injectable medications, including biologics. Treatment can also include complementary and alternative approaches, such as supplements or probiotics.
Though much more rare, dry, itchy skin can be a symptom of a more serious illness. It can be a sign of liver or kidney disease, diabetes or a problem with your immune system. “If the itch is a symptom of something serious, the best approach is to treat that underlying issue,” Dr. Jacob says.
Dr. Jacob says dry, itchy skin is usually treatable and not a sign of a serious illness. “But, if the itch lasts for more than a couple of weeks, pay notice. If it becomes your primary focus or affects a large area of your body, see your doctor.”