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Managing winter skin conditions

Dr Sybil Borthwick MBBS, FRACGP

Winter can be a hard time for those with skin conditions.  Ailments related to dry skin, like eczema and psoriasis, often flare at this time of year.

The low outside temperatures and low humidity can be drying to exposed skin, and the increased time spent in winter clothing and in heated indoor environments can make covered skin hot and itchy.

Eczema is a problem of excess fluid loss through the skin. This makes the skin prone to becoming very dry and itchy, which can lead to scratching and possibly infection. The skin feels rough, and can look red and irritated or dry and thickened.

Eczema is common in all age groups but particularly in infants and children.

There are several measures you can take to reduce the risk of an eczema flare over the winter months. These strategies aim to reduce the skin’s dryness and heat, and to minimise irritation which can cause itch.

Moisturiser is the cornerstone of eczema management, and it should be applied liberally to any affected skin. Use of non-soap bath oils can also be very effective at improving skin hydration.

It is important to avoid overheating skin in the winter. This tends to happen particularly overnight if the bed clothes are too heavy or if too much night clothing is worn. It is best to avoid heaters in bedrooms if possible, as well as trying to avoid very hot baths or showers. Hot skin tends to become itchy and uncomfortable, and this can have a significant effect on the quality of sleep as well as causing eczema flares.

The third component of eczema management is avoiding irritants. These can include scratchy fabrics or tags on clothing, as well as soaps, bubble baths, laundry detergents, sand (eg in sand pits) or sitting or lying on woollen carpets.

Eczema can have a big impact on the quality of life of the sufferer and those around them. It causes great discomfort, and the sleep disturbance due to night-time itch can cause deterioration in behaviour and can impair concentration and learning.

Eczema is, however, a completely treatable condition, and if the above measures are not sufficient to control symptoms, you should see your GP to discuss the many options available for further management.

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