Diagnosing and Treating a Winter Rash

Medically reviewed by Debra Henline, Sullivan, PhD, MSN , CNE, COI on March 25, 2016Written by Annette McDermott

Cold weather can take a toll on your body. As temperatures drop, so does the moisture content in your skin. This can lead to a winter rash. A winter rash is an area of irritated skin. It’s most often caused by dry skin. Even if you have healthy skin the rest of the year, you may develop a winter rash during cold seasons. The condition is common and often recurs year after year. Most people who live in cold climates have experienced it at least once.  

Without treatment and lifestyle changes, your rash may last throughout winter. Fortunately, there are ways to keep your skin healthy and moisturized year-round.

Symptoms of Winter Rashes

A winter rash may include any of the following symptoms:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • itching
  • flaking
  • sensitivity
  • bumps
  • blisters

The rash may impact a single area of your body, often your legs, arms, or hands. In other cases, it may be widespread on your body.

Risk Factors to Consider

Anyone can get a winter rash, but some people are more prone than others. You’re more likely to develop a winter rash if you have a history of:

  • eczema
  • rosacea
  • dermatitis
  • allergies
  • asthma
  • sensitive skin

Spending a lot of time outdoors may also raise your risk of developing a winter rash.

Possible Causes of a Winter Rash

Your skin’s outer layer contains natural oils and dead skin cells that hold water inside your skin. This helps keep your skin soft, moisturized, and smooth.

Bitter cold temperatures can affect the condition of your skin. Cold air, low humidity, and high winds outdoors strip your skin of much-needed moisture. Turning up the heat and taking hot showers indoors do the same. These harsh conditions cause your skin to lose its natural oils. This allows moisture to escape, leading to dry skin and potentially a winter rash.

Other possible causes of a winter rash include:

  • sensitivity to antibacterial soaps, deodorizing soaps, detergents, or other chemicals
  • skin conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema
  • a bacterial infection
  • a viral infection
  • a latex allergy
  • stress
  • fatigue

Sunburns can also lead to a winter rash. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can be potent, even in winter. In fact, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation, snow reflects up to of UV light, which means can be hit by the same rays twice. UV rays are also more intense at higher altitudes. This is important to remember if you enjoy snowboarding, skiing, or other alpine sports.

Diagnosing a Winter Rash

Your doctor can often diagnose a winter rash during a physical exam. They’ll review your symptoms and medical history to help determine the cause of your rash and prescribe treatment.

If you haven’t changed your soap or exposed your skin to chemicals recently, chances are your rash is due to dry skin. If you’re moisturizing your skin regularly and limiting your exposure to extreme cold or hot temperatures, something else may be causing your rash. It’s possible you’re experiencing an allergic reaction to a personal care product or medication. You may also have an infection or skin condition, such as eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis.

Treating a Winter Rash

Most treatments for a winter rash are inexpensive and don’t require a prescription. For example:

  • Moisturizers are often the first defense against a winter rash because they help lock moisture into your skin. Apply moisturizer several times a day, especially after bathing and hand washing.
  • Petroleum jelly also acts as a barrier to help seal moisture into your skin. If you don’t like the idea of using petroleum products, consider trying petroleum substitutes, such as Waxelene or Un-Petroleum, which also prevent moisture loss.
  • Natural oils, such as olive oil and coconut oil, may help soothe your irritated skin and replenish moisture. Apply to your skin as needed.
  • Vegetable shortening is another popular folk remedy for dry skin because its solid oil content helps restore moisture. Try slathering it on after bathing or before bed.
  • Bathing with milk may help soothe your itchy skin. Dip a clean washcloth into whole milk and dab it on the affected area of your body, or soak in a warm bath with milk added for about 10 minutes.
  • Oatmeal soap and baths may also help soothe your skin. Purchase soap made with oatmeal, or add finely ground oats to a warm bath, and soak in it for about 10 minutes.
  • Topical cortisone creams, which are available with or without a prescription, may help reduce your skin’s redness, itching, and inflammation. Follow the manufacturer’s directions or use as directed by your doctor.

Most winter rashes improve with lifestyle changes, home remedies, and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. Others may persist or get worse. Scratching may cause your skin to crack and bleed. This gives bacteria the perfect opening and puts you at risk of infection.

Contact your doctor if you have a rash that isn’t responding to OTC treatments, is bleeding, or has severe symptoms.

How to Prevent a Winter Rash

The best way to prevent winter rash is to avoid cold climates and dry air entirely. Try these prevention tips if you don’t spend your winter in a warm climate:

  • Invest in a humidifier to add moisture to the air around you. Whole-house, single-room, and personal humidifiers are available.
  • Bathe less often, lather up at little as possible, and avoid hot water. Consider bathing every other day during the winter, when your body may not sweat as much or get as dirty.
  • Use natural, fragrance-free soaps made from glycerin, goat milk, shea butter, or olive oil.
  • Wear clothes made from breathable natural fibers, such as cotton and hemp, to help reduce skin irritation and overheating.
  • Protect your hands by wearing gloves every time you go outside in cold weather. You should also wear protective gloves when you wash dishes, immerse your hands in water for an extended period, or clean with chemical products.
  • Prevent winter sunburns by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher when you spend time outdoors.

Limit the time you spend in front of fires, which decrease humidity and expose your skin to intense heat.

The Takeaway

Taking preventive steps and applying moisturizer at the first sign of dry skin, can help you reduce your risk of a winter rash.

Some winter rashes are just a nuisance. Other rashes are more serious and require medical treatment. Contact your doctor if your rash doesn’t improve despite home treatment or you have other concerns about your rash.

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