Winter itch is a skin problem that occurs when temperature and humidity drop, and the skin dramatically loses moisture, but how do you recognise that your cold weather itchiness is winter itch or something else?
Also known as pruritus hiemalis, winter itch is usually a mild skin problem associated with colder, drier air, although in severe cases it can get quite uncomfortable and debilitating. Let’s take a look at how it can be distinguished from other skin conditions, especially those that can also get worse in winter, like eczema or psoriasis.
What is winter itch?
- It’s a kind of dermatitis that occurs in colder, drier weather
- It’s an itch on apparently ‘normal’, if dry, skin
- It’s not a rash or outbreak of spots
- It usually affects the legs
- It doesn’t affect the face, scalp or hands
- It’s only noticeable if the skin has been scratched
- It tends to occur as clothes are taken off
- It mostly affects older people
- It’s not more common in either men or women
- It can be associated with soap/baths
- It’s also associated with hot, itchy or thick clothes
- It comes on suddenly, often at night
- The scratching can cause broken skin and other damage
Diagnosing winter itch
Winter itch can be associated with or mistaken for other kinds of dermatitis, like eczema or contact dermatitis for example;it can also be hard to distinguish it from ‘normal’ dry skin that can be itchy in a similar way, but isn’t confined to winter or to the legs.
The main point about winter itch is that it’s not really visible until it’s been scratched at. The itch itself doesn’t cause a rash or a breakout of spots or pimples, it’s just a sensation. So the visible symptoms only happen once it’s been scratched and the skin has been damaged. The area can get discoloured (erythematous), rough, damaged by scratch marks, or get thickened (lichenification). In severe cases, the damage caused by scratching can even cause folliculitis in damaged hair shafts.
How to manage winter itch
While there’s no cure for winter itch, certain things can help manage the symptoms, and make sufferers more comfortable.
Emollients are the first line of defence against the condition, as they keep skin hydrated and less likely to feel itchy and uncomfortable. Apply an oil-based, unscented moisturiser (like Balmonds Skin Salvation) as soon as you take off your clothes, and again before bed.
Baths: if you bathe before bed, try adding a gentle, unscented bath oil (like Balmonds Bath & Body Oil) to warm (not hot) water. Another good thing to try is putting a handful of ordinary porridge oats tied up in a sock into the bath. Avoid scented soaps or bubble baths, and make sure you dry your skin gently and then moisturise it within three minutes of getting out.
Clothes: Wear light, natural fibres, rather than thick, hot synthetic materials - although be aware that wool, although natural, can be very irritating against dry or sensitive skin!
Recommended products for winter itch:
Balmonds Skin Salvation
with hemp and beeswax
Balmonds Cooling Cream
with shea, menthol, aloe vera & lavender
Bath & Body Oil
with lavender, hemp and olive
If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
Do not delay getting help if you're worried. Trust your instincts.