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How Winter’s Cold Air Can Affect Your Eczema

There are plenty of reasons to protect yourself from the cold. And if you have eczema (also called atopic dermatitis), the frosty air can do more than just give you the shivers. According to allergist and immunologist Jessica Hui, MD, winter weather can aggravate the skin, causing a flare up of eczema symptoms. 

“The connection between cold air and worsening skin conditions is something that doctors have written about since the 1800s,” said Dr. Hui. “But more recently, there’s been real data-driven research that confirms this relationship.” 

Why Does Cold Air Irritate the Skin?

Dr. Hui explained that when skin cells are exposed to colder temperatures, it triggers inflammation. This inflammation in the cells then spreads throughout the body, causing a domino effect. 

The result is skin that feels itchy or dry. In fact, one of the reasons the winter season can aggravate eczema is the reduction of moisture on the skin caused by dry, cold air. “When it comes to the exact mechanisms behind the relationship between cold air and eczema, that’s something we’re continuing to research,” Dr. Hui explained. “But we definitely know cold can decrease humidity and dry out the skin.” 

The reverse effect can be observed in warmer, humid climates. Doctors treating eczema during the winter will sometimes hear about patients’ symptoms improving while they’re visiting relatives in balmier parts of the country. “If I have a patient whose eczema suddenly gets better when they leave Denver for a few weeks to see Grandma in Florida, that’s a clear indication their eczema is being triggered by the cold,” said Dr. Hui. 

Use Moisturizer, Not Your Fingernails

When cold air irritates your skin, it can feel itchy. And when it itches, you’re more likely to start scratching. This habit starts a vicious cycle, according to Dr. Hui, since you’re causing even more inflammation. 

There are better ways to get relief from cold weather eczema. For instance, using moisturizers or ointments can soothe the skin and prevent flare ups. “Ointments help trap the moisture on your skin after bathing,” explained Dr. Hui. “This will help heal and restore the skin barrier.” 

During cold weather conditions, thicker moisturizers are often preferable. And cream-based moisturizers are almost always more effective than lotions, according to Dr. Hui. 

Don’t Be a Tough Guy

“You know how some people like to show off how tough they are by wearing short shorts during the winter? Don’t do that,” advised Dr. Hui. 

Dressing appropriately for the weather and avoiding colder conditions can make a big difference in treating eczema. “Of course, it’s not practical to tell people to remain indoors all winter. If you live in a place where you need to shovel snow in your driveway, you’re going to have to venture out sometime,” said Dr. Hui. “Just remember to use moisturizing ointments and keep that skin covered. Bundle up if you need to.” 

If you find that your eczema isn’t responding to these everyday cold weather solutions, talk to your doctor about other treatments.

Eczema Treatment at National Jewish Health

If you or someone you know suffers from eczema, National Jewish Health has both adult and pediatric allergists who can help. Our pediatric eczema program has more than 40 years of experience successfully treating kids from around the U.S. with difficult to diagnose and treat eczema.