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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
You’ve got patches of skin on your body that look like they could use a tall glass of water—they’re dry, maybe itchy or peeling, and downright annoying. Often, dry patches are simply caused by weather changes during the winter months, when the air is drier and the skin doesn’t get as much moisture. Still, dry patches could have other causes, and determining the cause behind your dry patches is important for treating them.
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What are dry patches?
Dry patches can form on the skin for a wide range of reasons. They can be an accumulation of dead skin cells or develop into a rash. Some people experience dry patches in specific areas, like the elbows or feet, while others may have dry skin all over their bodies.
Signs of dry skin
The obvious symptom of dry patches is an area of the body that feels dry to the touch. Other signs and symptoms may accompany the dry patch, depending on the cause, including:
- Scaly appearance
- Discolored—red, silver, brownish colors
- Inflammation or swelling
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Causes of dry patches
Here are some of the possible causes of dry patches on the skin:
- Climate: The area you live in may increase your chances for dry skin, especially during cold weather months. Cold temperatures and harsh winter winds can lead to dry, cracked, and flaky skin. Also, using a heater indoors can lower the humidity of the air, further drying out the skin (Goad, 2016).
- Dehydration: Not drinking enough water throughout the day affects the hydration of your skin. So, when you’re dehydrated, you’re more likely to have drier skin.
- Eczema: Also called atopic dermatitis, this chronic skin condition leads to dry, itchy skin that’s more likely to become infected. Common symptoms are red or brownish-gray patches on the hands, feet, ankles, neck, and elbows (Nemeth, 2021).
- Psoriasis: This skin condition is caused by excess skin cells that form plaques on the skin. The plaques appear as dry patches like white or silvery scales (Nair, 2021).
- Contact dermatitis: This condition is caused by a reaction after contact with a substance. Triggers can include soap, cosmetics, fragrances, detergents, jewelry, and other allergens. The primary symptom is a red, itchy rash in the affected areas. It sometimes appears as a dry, inflamed patch.
- Actinic keratosis: This condition develops after years of sun exposure and causes rough, scaly patches on the skin.
- Athlete’s foot: This condition is caused by a fungal infection and usually begins between the toes. Symptoms include dryness, rash, itching, stinging, and burning. It’s more common in people with sweaty or wet feet that were confined to wet shoes for long periods.
- Ichthyosis vulgaris: It’s often called fish scale disease because the most common symptom is dry patches in the shape of scales. Symptoms often form on the arms and legs.
- Ringworm: This condition is a contagious fungal infection (not a worm) affecting the skin and scalp. The most common symptom is a circular, scaly patch that may be red and itchy.
- Poison ivy: This condition is caused by an allergic reaction to the oil produced by the poison ivy plant. It causes redness, itching, swelling, blisters, and dry skin.
- Smoking: There is an association between smoking cigarettes and dermatitis on the hands (Lai, 2016).
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Risk factors for dry patches
For many skin conditions, it’s difficult to understand the exact cause for them developing. Still, some risk factors may increase your risk for dry patches and skin conditions, including (Lai, 2016; Nair, 2021; Nemeth, 2021):
- Genetics and family history
- Geographical location
- Products and soaps used
- Stress levels
- Hot water
Diagnosis for dry patches
Often, people can self-diagnose dry patches of skin, especially when caused by the weather or a reaction to a new product. If you have dry patches that get worse or don’t go away, talk with a healthcare provider to help find the cause of your symptoms.
You may be referred to a dermatologist, who is a doctor specializing in dermatology or skin conditions. Depending on the skin condition, you may need lab testing or skin biopsies for diagnosis.
Treatments for dry patches
Different treatments will help different skin conditions.
For example, if the dry patches are caused by a fungal infection, like ringworm or athlete’s foot, you’ll need an antifungal medication to treat your symptoms. Some antifungal medications are available over-the-counter to treat these infections. If symptoms don’t improve, talk with your healthcare provider because you may need a stronger antifungal or a more extended treatment course.
Here are some of the other recommended treatments for dry patches (Lai, 2016; Nair, 2021; Nemeth, 2021):
- Lotion and moisturizers: Moisturizers help lock in moisture. So, they are best applied after a shower, washing your face, or dampening the skin with water and patting dry.
- Exfoliating: Removing dead skin cells is important for preventing their build-up from forming dry patches. This can be done with chemicals (like AHA, BHA, salicylic acid, etc) or physical scrubs. Note, this method may not be appropriate for infections or open cracks in the skin. Exfoliating is a recommended skincare step for dry skin for causes like cold weather and psoriasis.
- Topical creams or ointments: Special creams and ointments, like antihistamines, can help with dry patch symptoms. There are specialty creams available for a wide range of conditions, including poison ivy, eczema, psoriasis, athlete’s foot, and other problems.
- Prescription medications: Sometimes, over-the-counter treatments may not be enough to clear skin conditions. Your healthcare provider may recommend prescription treatments to manage the condition and improve symptoms.
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Preventing dry patches
Not all skin conditions that cause dry patches can be prevented. Still, there are some actions you can take to lower your risk for dry skin, including:
- Use a humidifier: If you notice a change in your skin during dry or winter months, consider using an indoor humidifier that can help to reduce some of your symptoms.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking enough water throughout the day helps to keep skin moisturized and healthier looking.
- Manage stress levels: High stress levels can trigger some conditions, like psoriasis and eczema. Managing your stress level can help reduce flare-ups of these types of conditions.
- Cleanse skin regularly: Washing skin once or twice daily with warm water and a mild cleanser helps to keep it clean without overwashing and causing irritation.
- Smoking cessation: Cigarette smoking increases your risk for multiple diseases and skin problems. If you need help while quitting, look for a support group or talk with your healthcare provider.
When to see a dermatologist
If you think an infection or underlying conditions may be causing your dry patches, it’s recommended to meet with a healthcare provider to have your symptoms diagnosed. Your healthcare provider can help ensure you have the best treatment plan to manage and resolve your symptoms. If you notice dry patches that won’t go away or continue to get worse, schedule an appointment to meet with your healthcare provider.
- Goad, N. & Gawkrodger, D. J. (2016). Ambient humidity and the skin: the impact of air humidity in healthy and diseased states. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 30(8), 1285–1294. doi: 10.1111/jdv.13707. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27306376/
- Lai, Y. C. & Yew, Y. W. (2016). Smoking and hand dermatitis in the united states adult population. Annals Of Dermatology, 28(2), 164–171. doi: 10.5021/ad.2016.28.2.164. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4828378/
- Nair, P. A. & Badri, T. (2021). Psoriasis. [Updated Aug. 11, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 5, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448194/
- Nemeth, V. & Evans, J. (2021). Eczema. [Updated Aug. 11, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 5, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538209/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.