Why Does Cold Cause Skin Itchiness?


Summertime skin irritation can be caused by a multitude of factors. Poison ivy, insect bites, heat rash, and sunburn comprise a comprehensive list of common outdoor ailments. However, if your skin begins to itch as the seasons change and the temperature drops, you may wonder why. In summary, it is quite likely that your itchy skin is also dry skin, as the two are frequently interwoven and both worsen as the temperature drops. Here, distinguished doctors explain just why this is the case and, more importantly, what you may do to calm your skin.

Itching is a complex phenomenon in its own right.
As a general explanation, itching occurs when specific nerve receptors in our skin are stimulated and send a signal to the brain via nerves known as C-fibers, resulting in the urge to scratch, according to Hayley Goldbach, M.D., a double board-certified dermatologist and dermatologist surgeon from Brown University. However, this stimulation can be caused by a variety of factors, resulting in several kinds of itching. Dr. Tiffany Libby, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Brown Dermatology and Bio-Oil partner, explains that itching can be caused by inflammation or other damage to the skin (known as cutaneous or pruitoceptive itch), damage to neurons, disorders affecting organs other than the skin, and even psychological disorders. She concludes that “itching is a complicated process that is still being investigated.”

Winter itchiness is usually due to skin dryness.
Winter naturally causes our skin to become drier. Dr. Goldbach adds, “The air has less moisture, and trans-epidermal water loss increases, which essentially implies that the skin is losing water.” Increased water loss from the skin compromises the skin barrier—the outermost layers of cells and lipids—causing the skin to become both drier and more irritable. According to Dr. Libby, pruitoceptive itching occurs when the nerve endings beneath the skin become inflamed, causing an itchy sensation. Similarly, disorders such as eczema, in which itching is a common symptom, tend to worsen when the temperature is cooler and the skin is drier.

Itching can occur anywhere on the body, but in some areas it may be more intense or you may be more aware of it. For instance, the most prevalent kind of eczema, atopic dermatitis, tends to manifest in body folds, such as the neck, elbow creases, and behind the knees. Dr. Libby observes that there are locations where the skin scrapes against itself, potentially causing discomfort. The face and hands, as well as areas with fewer oil glands, such as the eyelids, are more susceptible to dryness. Dr. Goldbach explains, “These areas are more exposed to the elements, including cold air, water, and even soap.” She notes that they can become easily irritated, resulting in dry, inflamed, and potentially itchy skin.

It is crucial to remember, however, that dry skin is not necessarily itchy. “It is possible to have dry skin that does not itch,” explains Dr. Libby. “More research is required to determine the real relationship between dry skin and itching,” she says. Consequently, if your skin itches suddenly and seemingly for no reason throughout the winter, it is likely extremely dry. Consequently, the following can be quite useful:

How to Relieve Itchy, Dry Skin
Simply put, you should do anything you can to restore and retain moisture in your skin. Dr. Goldbach recommends using ointments and creams with a greater viscosity as opposed to lighter lotions. These often contain a greater concentration of occlusive substances (such as shea butter, dimethicone, and petrolatum), which effectively build a barrier on the skin to retain moisture. Consider using the Aveeno Eczema Therapy Itch Relief Balm ($20; walgreens.com). Regardless of the type of moisturizer you choose, apply it shortly after your shower, when it can lock in some of the remaining moisture on your skin. You should also avoid items containing scent, a frequent irritant that can increase skin irritation, as noted by Dr. Goldbach.

If the itching is extremely severe, you might try applying anti-itch cream to particularly irritating areas. Dr. Libby suggests Sarna Sensitive Anti-Itch Lotion ($15; amazon.com), which contains a topical anesthetic proven to have anti-itch qualities; the recipe is suitable for persons with eczema-prone skin. Modifications to one’s lifestyle can also be helpful. According to Dr. Goldbach, adding a humidifier to your bedroom to replenish the air’s moisture will help treat dry, itchy skin. Taking shorter, cooler showers is also beneficial, as hot water is renowned for dehydrating the skin.

If your itchiness is accompanied by hives, you may have a different skin disease.
All the same, if you only experience extreme itching following exposure to cold, you may have cold urticaria, a skin allergy to cold that manifests within minutes of contact. Especially if your itchy skin is accompanied by hives and welts. Self-diagnosis can be accomplished by placing an ice cube on the skin for a few minutes. If your skin begins to swell or become inflamed, you likely have cold urticaria. Avoiding the cold as much as possible is the only guaranteed approach to preventing this disease, but if avoidance is difficult and nothing seems to help, it’s always a good idea to consult a board-certified dermatologist who can help you develop a tailored antihistamine strategy.