While almost everyone can’t deny their readiness for the spring season, many men and women welcome spring with just a pinch of skepticism, as this tends to also be the season when pollen allergies lead to the itching and inflammation of eczema.
Of course, chronic itching can affect anyone with dry skin, an overactive thyroid or those with pinched or damaged nerves. Jeannette Graf, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York has a multitude of tips to relieve dry itchy skin this season. The key to relief and prevention is to protect the moisture barrier of the skin, composed of water and lipids found in the outermost layer of skin and Graf tells us, “This is your natural protection against the elements, and is essential in helping to prevent moisture loss." She also states that, “Harsh cleansers and even detergent ingredients in your skin care products and cosmetics can weaken and damage the skin barrier. When skin loses moisture, the cells shrink. This can leave cracks, which literally creates points of entry for irritants and activates the skin’s inflammatory response. This response can result in chronic itching.”
For any of you dealing with dry itchy skin caused by eczema or anything else, Graf offers these strategies for relief:
- Cool It! Short, lukewarm baths and tepid showers (no longer than 5 minutes) are more comforting to itch-prone skin. Hot water and strong or abrasive cleansers can trigger flare-ups by depleting the skin barrier of its protective lipids. Afterward, gently pat skin dry with a soft towel—no brisk rubbing!
- Lock in moisture. Applying emollient-rich body cream or lotion while skin is still damp (within 3 minutes after stepping out of the tub or shower) helps to keep the skin barrier intact. This makes skin cells more efficient in holding on to essential moisture. An intact barrier also prevents the entry of potential irritants. Emollient ingredients to look for include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, Shea butter, cocoa butter and extra-virgin coconut oil.
- Soothe—and prevent—the itch. For itch-prone skin in need of intensive care, you want a product that not only increases moisture but also repairs the skin barrier and strengthens the skin’s natural defense system. This helps to guard against any pathogenic agents that can potentially trigger secondary bacterial infections. One option: Eau Thermale Avène has a new trio of skin-soothers to target itching: Avène XeraCalm A.D Lipid-Replenishing Cleansing Oil, Cream and Balm. All have thermal spring water and a new active, I-modulia®. This active ingredient helps to ease itching and inflammation and also helps to strengthen skin’s natural immunity.
- Stop scratching! You’re only irritating more nerve endings than the irritant that caused the itch. If no soothing creams or lotions are handy, cover the itchy area with an ice pack or a cold, damp washcloth for a few minutes; reapply as needed.
- Be on the lookout for potential irritants in cosmetics and skin care products. Ingredients such as perfumes and preservatives in some products are often culprits that can set off itching and bouts of eczema.
- Clean up your act! Dust mites and airborne particles can trigger an itchy rash in sensitive individuals. Weekly vacuuming using anti-allergy filter-equipped vacuum as well as damp-mopping floors can help to keep dust in check. You might also consider investing in an air purifier but make sure you change the filter frequently. Living with the right indoor plants can also help to purify the air. Clean-air plants to help you breathe easier and stress less are Dracaena, Pothos and Peace Lily.
- Launder with gentle detergents. Dust and airborne particles can also lurk in your bedding. Be sure to launder weekly in hot water with a gentle, fragrance-free detergent with a neutral pH to minimize allergies.
- Nourish your skin from the inside out. In response to irritants, the immune system in sensitive individuals kicks in and sets off the reaction that causes itching. To help keep your immune system running smoothly, drink plenty of water—with a squeeze of lemon or lime whenever possible—and eat an alkalinizing diet. Enjoy a colorful Mediterranean diet both high in fiber and rich in Omega fatty acids, which includes food such as halibut, salmon, olive oil, flaxseeds, dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens and winter squash. Alkalinizing grains include oats, wild rice and quinoa. Examples of alkalinizing fruits are apples, pears, blackberries, cantaloupe and grapes. As for supplements, add Probiotics to your regimen as well as Vitamin D3, which helps to regulate the skin’s anti-microbial and repair systems.
- Manage stress. Just like irritants, negative emotions can set off the body’s defense mechanism that triggers or aggravates itching. Regular exercise, yoga, meditation—even 15 minutes of quiet private time daily can go a long way to reduce stress levels. We can’t escape the pressures of life, but we can create calming moments to minimize tension.
- Partner with a dermatologist. If you are afflicted with chronic itching, it is helpful to see a dermatologist. Not only can itching be triggered by seasonal allergies, but it can also result from fungal infections, contact dermatitis from exposing skin to nickel, latex, dyes, fragrances, and/or preservative, as well as eczema and very dry skin. If you have atopic dermatitis (a common form of eczema) you may also have asthma, hay fever or food allergies, which need to be treated separately. In some cases itching can be a sign of some systemic issues such as liver or kidney problems. So if you get no relief from skin care and lifestyle changes, it is important to have an internal work-up. With the correct diagnosis, your dermatologist can prescribe the best course of action for comfort and prevention of future flare-ups of itching and itchy rashes.