Dry skin is a common condition which may be mild initially, but which has the potential to become severe and disabling. In the early stages, symptoms of dry skin such as reddening and cracking may be seen. Later, pieces of the skin may flake off, and any cracks may deepen until bleeding occurs. In some case, the skin becomes itchy, and scratching causes damage that makes symptoms worse. Generally, the symptoms of dry skin vary according to a person's age and state of health, the climate and any underlying conditions.
There are many causes of dry skin. Some are environmental, such as exposure to sun, or cold, dry weather, and spending time in heated or air-conditioned rooms. As people age, their skin tends to become drier and habits such as bathing frequently and using shampoos and soaps can make the problem worse. Medical causes of dry skin include eczema, a condition in which dry skin patches develop, psoriasis, in which raised, scaly plaques of skin occur, and hypothyroidism. In hypothyroidism, the skin glands produce less oil and sweat, leading to areas of dry skin which have a crazy paving appearance and which are commonly seen on the legs.
The symptoms of dry skin may be temporary, resolving after a number of weeks, or they may recur regularly, typically appearing every winter. Sometimes dryness becomes long-term, or chronic, and in severe cases this can be disabling, particularly if it affects the hands. Dry skin often looks different from normal skin, perhaps having a shrunken appearance or displaying a rough texture or redness. It may feel tight after contact with water. Lines, flaking and cracking are more obvious signs of dryness and, in severely dry skin, peeling and bleeding may also be seen.
Complications sometimes develop as a result of dry skin. Areas of peeling, broken skin may be painful, and infection may arise because bacteria are able to penetrate the skin, which is no longer forming an effective barrier. Treatment with antibiotics may then become necessary.
The symptoms of dry skin can often be relieved by using moisturizing products and avoiding factors which aggravate the condition, such as harsh detergents or frequent, hot baths. Sometimes, treating dry skin may require the use of medication, such as steroid ointments used in the management of eczema. Successfully treating any underlying conditions such as hypothyroidism can also help improve the symptoms of dry skin.