Why Does Skin Get Itchy When It's Cold?

Plus what you can do about it.



There are plenty of culprits that can cause itchy skin during the summer. Poison ivy, bug bites, heat rash, sunburn—the list is lengthy. But if your skin starts to get itchy as the seasons change and temperatures start to drop, you may be wondering what gives. In short, it’s very likely that your itchy skin is also dry skin; the two are often intertwined, both getting worse as the weather gets colder. Here, top dermatologists explain exactly why that’s the case, and, more importantly, what you can do to help soothe your skin.

Itching is a complicated phenomenon in and itself

As a general explanation, itching occurs when specific nerve receptors in our skin are stimulated and send a signal to the brain via nerves called C-fibers, leading to the urge to scratch, says Hayley Goldbach, M.D., a double board-certified dermatologist and dermatologist surgeon at Brown University. However, there are multiple things that can cause that stimulation, and as such there are different types of itching. There’s itch that originates due to inflammation or other damage in the skin (known as cutaneous or pruitoceptive itch), some that results from damage to neurons, another kind that is caused by disorders that affect organs other than the skin, and even itching that can be caused by a psychological disorder, explains Tiffany Libby, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Brown Dermatology and Bio-Oil partner. In short, “itching is a complex process that is still being studied,” she says.

If your skin is itchy in the winter, dryness is likely to blame

Our skin naturally gets drier in the winter. “The air has less moisture and there is more trans-epidermal water loss, which essentially means that the skin is losing water,” explains Dr. Goldbach. When there’s increased water loss from the skin, the skin barrier, the outermost layers of cells and lipids, becomes compromised, leaving the skin both drier and more irritated. The nerve endings underneath the skin can also become irritated, triggering an itching sensation, an example of pruitoceptive itch, says Dr. Libby. Similarly, it bears mentioning that conditions such as eczema, of which itching is often a symptom, also tend to get worse in colder weather when the skin is drier.

Itching can occur anywhere on the body, but there are some spots where it may be worse or you may notice it more than others. For example, atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema, tends to appear in body folds, like on the neck, elbow creases, and behind the knees. These are areas where the skin rubs against itself, potentially causing irritation, notes Dr. Libby. Spots that have fewer oil glands, such as the eyelids, are more prone to dryness, as are the face and hands. “These spots are more exposed to the environment, and things such as cold air, water, and even soap,” says Dr. Goldbach. They can get easily irritated, leading to dry, inflamed, and potentially itchy skin, she explains.

However, it is important to note that dry skin isn’t always itchy. “You can have dry skin that doesn’t itch,” says Dr. Libby. “More studies need to be done to discern the true link between dry skin and itch,” she says. That being said, if your skin suddenly starts itching during the winter, seemingly for no reason, odds are good that it’s also very dry. And in that case, the below can be very helpful…

How to Soothe Dry Itchy Skin

Simply put, doing whatever you can to help add back and lock moisture into your skin is your best bet. Rather than opting for more lightweight lotions, Dr. Goldbach suggests reaching for thicker ointments and creams. These tend to contain higher amounts of occlusive ingredients (things such as shea butter, dimethicone, and petrolatum) which essentially create a seal on top of the skin to keep moisture in. Try: Aveeno Eczema Therapy Itch Relief Balm ($20; walgreens.com). Top tip: No matter what kind of moisturizer you’re using, apply it immediately post-shower, when it can lock in some of the moisture still left on your skin. You’ll also want to steer clear of products that contain fragrance, a common irritant that can exacerbate any inflammation in the skin, notes Dr. Goldbach.

If the itch is really bad, you can try using an anti-itch lotion to alleviate the sensation on particularly itchy spots. Dr. Libby recommends Sarna Sensitive Anti-Itch Lotion ($15; amazon.com), which contains a topical anesthetic that’s shown to have anti-itch properties; the formula is a good choice even for those with eczema-prone skin, she says. Some lifestyle tweaks can help too. Dr. Goldbach says adding a humidifier to your bedroom to add back moisture to the air can help combat dry, itchy skin. Taking shorter, cooler showers is another good move, since hot water is notorious for drying out the skin.

If your itching comes with hives, you may have another skin condition

All that being said, if you're only experiencing intense itch reactions after cold exposure, you may have cold uritcaria, a literal skin allergy to cold that appears within minutes of exposure. This is especially likely if your itchy skin is accompanied by hives and welts. A good way to self-diagnose is to place an ice cube on your skin for a few minutes. If your skin starts to show swelling or inflammation there, you probably have cold urticaria. Avoiding the cold as much as possible is the only surefire way to avoid this condition, but if if avoidance is impossible and nothing seems to be helping, it's always a good idea to see a board-certified dermatologist who can help you devise a personalized antihistamine plan.

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