Q. How do I keep my child's skin from getting dry and chapped this time of year?
A. That itchy, dry, winter skin! It may be an irritant for us as adults, but for children, particularly those with some underlying common skin problems like eczema, it can cause serious problems. Skin itching can make infants irritable and keep young children up at night and make them at risk for skin infections and long term skin scarring.
So why does skin get so dry in the winter? This is an interesting meteorological question! The absolute humidity of air is much lower in the winter. Remember that more water can get suspended in hot air than in cold air. So even though the relative humidity (what the weatherman reports as humidity) can be similar to what is reported in the summer, the actual absolute amount of water in the air is much less. On top of that, the cold air is brought into the house, where it is heated and then expands, making the low amount of water even less relative to the amount of air. The result is that indoor winter air is extremely low in water content.
How can we protect sensitive skin from the drier air? If skin irritation or dryness is mild, a good emollient usually is enough to trap water in the skin. So bathe your child daily or every other day, with minimal soap, and dab off with a towel but don’t rub off the water as this can irritate the skin. Immediately after the bath coat any affected areas with a good emollient like Vaseline, Eucerin or a similar ointment. Keep those areas coated twice a day. If the rough patches don’t improve or if they cause frequent itching, you can try 1% hydrocortisone ointment on the areas twice a day, which will decrease the inflammation there. Again, try to find the ointment (oil-based) instead of the cream (water-based). If that doesn’t work, get to a doctor; these skin problems are usually easily treated with careful skin care and doctor’s prescriptions.
Remember, the more your child scratches, the more it will itch. So do what you can to prevent that winter dry skin.
If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Dr. Steiner or any of our experts by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician in the department of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC and North Carolina Children’s Hospital, a group of health-care professionals dedicated to improving the health of children and adolescents through clinical care, research, education and advocacy. The group includes over 25 physicians, practitioners, nurses and other health-care professionals. We supervise the care of children with general medical problems at N.C. Children’s Hospital, including the newborn nursery, primary care clinic and a complex care and diagnostic clinic that also sees patients at the N.C. Children’s Specialty Clinic located on the Rex Healthcare campus in Raleigh.