Ordinarily, dry skin isn't serious, but it can be uncomfortable and unsightly, turning plump cells into shriveled ones and creating fine lines and wrinkles.
Serious dry skin conditions — an inherited group of disorders called ichthyosis — can sometimes be disfiguring, causing psychological distress. Fortunately, most dry skin results from environmental factors that can be wholly or partially controlled. These include exposure to hot or cold weather with low humidity levels and excessive bathing.
Chronic or severe dry skin problems may require a dermatologist's evaluation. But first you can do a lot on your own to improve your skin, including using moisturizers, bathing less and avoiding harsh, drying soaps.
Dry skin is often just a temporary problem — one you experience only in winter, for example — but it may be a lifelong concern. And although skin is often driest on your arms and lower legs, this pattern can vary considerably from person to person. What's more, signs and symptoms of dry skin depend on your age, your health status, your locale, the amount of time you spend outdoors and the cause of the problem.
If you have dry skin, you're likely to experience one or more of the following:
When to see a doctor
Though most cases of dry skin (xerosis) are caused by environmental exposures, certain diseases also can significantly alter the function and appearance of your skin. Potential causes of dry skin include:
Although anyone can develop dry skin, you may be more likely to develop the condition if you:
In some people who have a tendency toward eczema, dry skin that's not cared for can lead to:
These complications are most likely to occur when your skin's normal protective mechanisms are severely compromised. For example, severely dry skin can cause deep cracks or fissures, which can open up and bleed, providing an avenue for invading bacteria.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred directly to a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Physical exam and medical history
You may have certain diagnostic tests if your doctor suspects that your dry skin is the result of an underlying medical condition, such as hypothyroidism.
Treatments and drugs
In most cases, dry skin problems respond well to home and lifestyle measures, such as using moisturizers and avoiding long, hot showers and baths. If you have very dry and scaly skin, your doctor may recommend you use an over-the-counter (nonprescription) cream that contains lactic acid or lactic acid and urea.
If you have a more serious skin disease, such as atopic dermatitis, ichthyosis or psoriasis, your doctor may prescribe prescription creams and ointments or other treatments in addition to home care.
Sometimes dry skin leads to dermatitis, which causes red, itchy skin. In these cases, treatment may include hydrocortisone-containing lotions. If your skin cracks open, your doctor may prescribe wet dressings with mildly astringent properties to contract your skin and reduce secretions and prevent infection.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Although it may not be possible to achieve flawless skin, the following measures can help keep your skin moist and healthy:
If dry skin causes itching, apply cool compresses to the area. To reduce inflammation, use a nonprescription hydrocortisone cream or ointment, containing at least 1 percent hydrocortisone. If these measures don't relieve your symptoms or if your symptoms worsen, see your doctor or consult a dermatologist.
Last Updated: 2010-11-23
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