Eczema in Winter
We can’t change the weather, but we can take steps to help our skin win the winter battle.
Even people who don’t have eczema often find that when they undress at the end of the day or get out of bed in the morning their skin feels itchy and they want to scratch — even if they felt comfortable moments before. Their skin is reacting to a sudden change in temperature even though the change in temperature wasn’t necessarily obvious to them. The same thing happens when a person enters a warm house on a cold winter’s day, or vice versa; the sudden change in temperature can contribute to feeling itchy.
The main aim should be to maintain an even skin temperature as much as possible, avoiding the hot-cold-hot-cold cycle. Keep each room at a constant, comfortable (but not too warm) temperature. Layers on the bed are better than one thick duvet, as the layers can then be peeled off one by one. Hot baths (and sitting right beside ﬁres and radiators) should be avoided, as the heat can trigger scratching. Bathe or shower in warm water only.
Very dry air (low humidity) can extract moisture from the skin and make eczema worse. Even if the weather is wet, humidity tends to remain low in winter. As the temperature drops, so does the air humidity.
At the same time, because it is cold outside, people tend to turn up the heat inside, and this makes the air there even drier. (Air-conditioned offices can also have a very drying effect on the skin).
Humidifiers are designed to put moisture back into the air. There is no scientific evidence that humidifiers help people with eczema, but some people have found them to be helpful. Any advantages have to be weighed against the disadvantages, including cost, portability and the potential increase in levels of dust mites, which thrive in moist, warm environments. A bowl of water in each room can help to increase humidity and will be a lot cheaper! These bowls can also breed bacteria though, so remember to empty, clean and reﬁll them daily.
Moisturizers are essential whatever the time of year, but in winter you may need to apply them even more frequently — especially before venturing outside on a cold day. You may also ﬁnd that you need a “heavier duty” moisturizer — an ointment rather than a cream — in the winter months.
The hands and face need extra protection if exposed to the elements. Dry lips get licked subconsciously to add moisture, which further dries them out. If you can tolerate it, protect the lips with an emollient ointment or petroleum jelly.
If the weather is cold, hats, scarves and gloves may be needed but avoid those made from wool, which can scratch and increase itching. Rough seams and loose threads can have the same effect. Women with eczema on their legs may need to shop around for cotton tights. If you are allergic to chromate, avoid leather gloves and hats, or wear a pair of silk gloves underneath the leather ones. Silk gloves may also be useful to wear under woolen gloves.
Try wearing several layers of cotton clothing rather than one heavy layer of warm clothing so you are better able to adjust your body temperature to suit you.
Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium that lives on our skin and in our noses. People with atopic dermatitis have a lot more staph bacteria on their skin than others, and any open skin makes them prone to infected eczema.
Cold and ﬂu virus infections occur more frequently in winter, and you need to be extra careful about the secondary transmission of staph to the people around you — particularly those who have eczema.
It is impossible to always prevent the transfer of staph, but be sure to keep plenty of tissues handy when you have a cold, so that you can catch as much of the bacteria as possible, and wash your hands after sneezing and coughing.
Not everyone’s eczema worsens in the winter. For those who suffer most during the warmer summer months, the winter can bring relief. With a little care and a good skincare routine, most of us should be able to get through the winter!
This article first appeared in the United Kingdom’s National Eczema Society magazine, Exchange. Edited and reprinted with permission.