Winter Eczema

Winter eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a severe skin condition classified by itching, scaling and dryness and is common in children and older adults during the colder months of the year.

What is winter eczema?

Atopic dermatitis is a group of conditions that occur on the surface of the skin. Each type of atopic dermatitis has a different trigger or cause for flare-up. In the case of winter eczema, the trigger is linked to cold weather and different behaviors and environments that occur during these months.

Characterized by skin that is cracked, dry and severely itchy, winter eczema may appear on individual parts of the body or it may even occur on the entire body when severe in nature. Winter eczema is most common in elderly people and in children. Winter eczema is thought to affect more than 245 million people around the world.

Causes of winter eczema

The exact cause of winter eczema isn’t entirely known but is believed to be related to the environment, as well as genetic factors.

Eczema, asthma and other allergic conditions are caused by environmental allergens such as dust mites. Dust mites are found in every household to a certain degree, and conditions such as eczema can flare up due to exposure to their excrement.

A genetic link has been found between eczema sufferers and celiac disease, with the estimate that eczema occurs three times more in individuals diagnosed with celiac disease. Those with relatives who have been diagnosed with celiac disease are twice as likely to suffer from eczema.

Regardless of the root cause of eczema, environmental changes during the colder months as well as behavioral changes are known to cause flare-ups of the condition. These changes and conditions include:

Air temperature changes

Moving back and forth from the outdoor cold air to the indoor heated air can irritate skin and deplete it of essential oils. One thing that cold outdoor air and indoor heated air have in common is that they are both low in humidity and very dry.


Wearing warm, wooly clothing to keep warm during the winter may irritate skin. Scratchy wool and harsh synthetic clothing is a must-have during the winter months but will irritate skin and cause winter eczema flare-ups.


Long proven to irritate eczema, stress in the winter months is very common. During the winter, there are holidays and festivities to contend with that can make people feel stressed and anxious, leading to flare-ups in winter eczema.

Hot water

Warming up in a hot bath may sound like a good way to combat the cold winter months, but it actually causes winter eczema flare-ups. Firstly, the high temperature of the water can be drying to skin. Secondly, rubbing skin dry with a towel will compound the irritation to skin.


Instead of the light salads and fruits enjoyed during the summer months, people tend to turn to comfort food like stews, casseroles and roasts when the weather turns cold. This is quite understandable and common, but for those with sensitive skin, a change in diet can cause a flare-up of winter eczema.

What are the symptoms of winter eczema?

Symptoms of winter eczema may include:

  • Severe itchy skin, especially during the evening
  • Skin patches that are dry and appear scaly
  • Red to brownish gray skin discoloration
  • Thick, dry patches of skin
  • Raw, sensitive skin

Areas of the body affected by winter eczema include:

  • Lower legs
  • Backs of knees
  • Inside of elbows
  • Face
  • Wrists
  • Hands
  • Lower back
  • Buttocks
  • Underarms
  • Neck
  • Scalp
  • Shoulders

Winter eczema treatments

Those with severe winter eczema should avoid scratching the affected area as much as possible. Seek medical attention for winter eczema flare-ups, as doctors will typically prescribe a corticosteroid cream or lotion to treat the flare-up of winter eczema.

Ease the symptoms of your winter eczema by following these treatments:

Use gentle cleansers and soaps

Avoid irritating sensitive skin by using body washes with moisturizing ingredients or those that have sensitive skin formulas. Products with oatmeal, for example, are very easy on sensitive skin and often have added moisturizers. Skip the long soak in the tub in favor of showers with a mild water temperature.

Find a rich moisturizer

Use a thin formula moisturizer right after showering, not a thin lotion. Petroleum jelly is a good option to seal in moisture on the skin. Make sure whatever moisturizer you use is applied more than once per day. Of course, your doctor may prescribe a hydrocortisone cream especially for your winter eczema, which should be used on the affected area. Apply as directed by your physician.

Winter eczema prevention

It may not be possible to prevent winter eczema flare-ups entirely, but by using the following tips, you can greatly reduce your skin irritation:

Avoid temperature extremes

Keep your home at a moderate temperature, not too warm. Make your showers and baths a comfortable temperature as well. Keep your bedding moderately warm and use breathable fabrics. Avoid standing too close to heat sources such as radiators or fireplaces to keep your skin from being too warm or excessive dryness.

Avoid irritating fabrics

Some woollen or synthetic clothing can irritate skin and cause a flare-up of winter eczema. These materials can also cause your skin to over-heat, irritating the condition even further. Dress in natural cotton fibers and wear layers to keep warm but not too warm. Make sure bed linens are sufficient to keep you warm but not too hot while sleeping and use fabrics that breathe.

Add some moisture to the air

Try a humidifier to combat the dry, heated air that is being pumped into your home by your central heating system. A humidifier adds back the moisture that is lost with central heating and helps your skin remain moisturized to avoid flare-ups. Humidifiers are available in portable or permanent units that should be maintained properly to avoid possible bacterial growth.

Increase your fluids

Drinking more water to keep your body hydrated from within will benefit your skin and prevent a winter eczema flare-up. Drink at least eight glasses of water each day and don’t skip your favorite warm beverages like tea, cocoa and coffee.

Supplement with vitamin D

In the cold months, there is a lack of sunshine, which means a lack of vitamin D in most people’s systems. Recent studies have shown that taking vitamin D supplements can prevent a winter eczema flare-up as well as aid in treating skin that has already begun to have symptoms. Add foods rich in vitamin D to your diet along with your supplement. These foods include oily fish, beef liver, cheese and eggs as well as fortified foods like milk, orange juice and some cereals.

Balance your diet

Be careful of indulging in winter foods that are heavy, filling or high in sugar as these can have an impact on winter eczema symptoms. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, as this can dehydrate your system and your skin. Drink plenty of water and increase your intake of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like oily fish, eggs, soybeans and flax seeds.

Reduce your stress levels

Look after your mental wellness as well as your physical wellness during the cold weather months. This time of year can be stressful when trying to get organized for the festive season. When your body is stressed, it becomes vulnerable to inflammation and irritation, making you prone to winter eczema flare-ups.

Go organic

Organic, sensitive formula make-up and skin care can help you avoid winter eczema flare-ups. These products are free from the harsh mineral and chemical additives that regular products do and are less likely to irritate or dry out sensitive skin.