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Health & Wellness: When dry skin is serious

By April Larson - PathologyWatch | Dec 8, 2021

Winter is on its way, and for residents of Utah, that can mean bloody noses, cracked knuckles and even acne flare-ups. Utah ranks as the fourth least humid state in the country, and when temperatures drop, the air holds less moisture, and the drier air causes all kinds of problems. 

Many of us have experienced the dry, itchy skin that accompanies a Utah winter, but when is it something you should be concerned about? Be aware that dry skin can lead to other issues, take steps to prevent dry skin and always see your doctor if you are concerned about a symptom so that you can feel confident that you are as healthy as you can be. 

Dry skin can lead to other issues

Dry skin can be itchy and uncomfortable, and it’s usually not serious. But it can also lead to other skin problems like eczema and heel fissures, for example. 

“If you’re prone to develop [eczema], excessive dryness can lead to activation of the disease, causing redness, cracking and inflammation,” according to MayoClinic.org. The symptoms of eczema include dry skin, itching, red to brownish-gray patches, raised bumps and thickened skin. 

Another problem dry skin can lead to is heel fissures – those deep cracks you get in your heels when you wear sandals all summer. These cracks can allow bacteria to enter the body, causing an infection. 

Don’t ignore dry skin; treat it so you can prevent other issues!

You can prevent dry skin

To avoid issues related to dry skin, take steps to prevent your skin from getting too dry in the first place. Here are a few tips to try:

  1. Keep a bottle of moisturizer next to your bathroom sink to remind yourself to moisturize every time you take a shower or wash your hands.
  2. Keep using sunscreen during the winter months, particularly at high altitude. “Even in winter, harmful UV light can still stress your skin’s moisture barrier, which is vital for maintaining skin health and hydration,” said Camerin Spahn at Healthline.
  3. Use a humidifier to counteract the drying effect of your heater. 
  4. Keep your bath or shower lukewarm, and afterwards, pat your skin dry rather than rubbing.
  5. Don’t over-exfoliate. If your skin starts to look flaky, consider a chemical exfoliant rather than a physical scrub. 
  6. If moisturizer isn’t cutting it, add occlusive ingredients like shea butter, cocoa butter, rosehip oil, jojoba oil or petroleum jelly to lock in moisture in non-acne prone areas.
  7. Stay hydrated and eat foods high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids to help your body make healthy skin cells.

Persistent dry skin could be a symptom of more serious problems

Dry skin is usually not serious, but if it persists despite your best efforts, it may indicate an underlying health condition. If you have chronic dry skin, speak with your doctor about potential eczema, psoriasis or allergies. 

When present as a single lesion, a patch of dry skin can potentially be a symptom of a more serious condition like squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the second-most common form of skin cancer.

“If you have a thick, rough, scaly red patch that bleeds if it gets bumped or scraped, you could be dealing with squamous cell carcinoma,” according to http://prevention.com. “SCC might also look like a wart or open sore with a raised border and crusted surface. Regardless of its specific appearance, one thing is certain: SCC is persistent, or a patch might heal and then return.”

SCC is easily treatable, but it’s important to catch it early so that it doesn’t become disfiguring or even deadly. When it comes to your skin, things you don’t need to worry about typically go away on their own; if not, go get checked by your dermatologist.

Another Utah winter is coming, but that doesn’t have to put a damper on your seasonal plans! Be aware that dry skin can lead to other issues, take steps to prevent dry skin, and always see your doctor if you are concerned about a symptom. By following these tips, you can feel confident knowing you are taking the best possible care of your skin.

April Larson, MD, FAAD, is the director of clinical implementation at PathologyWatch, a dermpath lab headquartered in Salt Lake City.

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