What causes dry skin? 17 possible conditions

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What Is Dry Skin?

Dry skin is an uncomfortable condition marked by scaling, itching, and cracking. It can occur for a variety of reasons. Some people have naturally dry skin and may experience frequent symptoms. However, even the oiliest skin can get dry at times.

Skin dryness can occur on any part of the body, but it is most common on the legs, arms, and abdominal area. If lifestyle changes fail to improve your symptoms, you should contact a doctor for a medical evaluation.

Types of Dry Skin

Dry skin that does not improve with lifestyle remedies may be a result of an underlying medical condition. Dermatitis is the medical term for extremely dry skin. The four types of dermatitis are:

  • allergic
  • atopic
  • contact
  • seborrheic

Allergic dermatitis occurs when an allergic reaction to certain substances causes rashes on the skin. Also known as eczema, this type of dermatitis leads to red, itchy skin that can also be scaly. The dry skin tends to get worse when you are exposed to an allergen, such as dust, pet dander, or pollen.

Atopic dermatitis is a long-term skin condition that results in extremely dry skin. It is often hereditary.

Contact dermatitis occurs if you are exposed to an irritating chemical agent. In this case, the skin immediately becomes inflamed for example poison oak.

Seborrheic dermatitis occurs when your skin produces too much oil. It results in a red and scaly rash, usually on the scalp. This type of dermatitis is common in infants.

Risk Factors

The elderly are more likely to develop dry skin. As you age, your pores naturally produce less oil. Dry skin is also more common during the fall and winter months, when the relative humidity levels are low. Humidity adds moisture in the air, which helps prevent your skin from drying out. Many people experience dryer skin during these times of low humidity, compared to in the summer, when humidity levels are usually high. Taking frequent baths also raises your risk of having dry skin. Still, dry skin can affect anyone at any age, and during any time of the year.

How Is Dry Skin Treated?

A dermatologist generally treats dermatitis. Along with lifestyle remedies, your doctor will likely prescribe ointments to help treat your dry skin. It is important to reduce the itchiness you experience, in order to lower your risk of infection. If you have any open sores from scratching, you may be given a prescription antibiotic.

Lifestyle Remedies

Certain simple lifestyle changes can help prevent you from developing dry skin. Try to:

  • shower every other day
  • keep your bathing time to between five and 10 minutes
  • avoid hot showers
  • use a moisturizing soap
  • avoid scrubbing dry skin patches
  • pat your skin dry with a soft towel
  • use a moisturizer immediately after showering
  • use a humidifier in the home
  • drink plenty of water

It is also important to choose the right kind of moisturizer for your skin type. Lotions that contain grape seed oil and antioxidants can help trap water in the skin. If your skin is extremely dry, look for a petrolatum-based product. You might consider switching to a lighter lotion—such as one that is water-based—during the summer months if your skin becomes oilier during that time of year.

What Is the Outlook for Dry Skin?

Occasional dry skin is usually easily managed through simple changes in your lifestyle. However, if you have dermatitis, you must seek medical treatment. Untreated dermatitis only gets worse, and early treatment will help you to feel comfortable sooner.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Heat Emergencies

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Heat emergencies are health crises caused by exposure to hot weather and sun. Heat emergencies have three stages: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. All three stages are serious.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Dehydration occurs when you lose more fluid than you drink. The most common cause of water loss from the body is excessive sweating. Headaches, dizziness, and decreased urination are symptoms.

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Allergic Eczema

When your body comes in contact with something that could make you ill, your immune system promotes chemical changes to help your body ward off disease. You are exposed to thousands of substances each day, and most wil...

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Psoriasis Overview

Psoriasis is a chronic, noncontagious skin disease characterized by red patches of skin often accompanied by silvery-white scales of dead skin cells. It may occur anywhere on the body.

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Toxic Megacolon

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Toxic megacolon is a rare, life-threatening swelling of the large intestine that occurs within a few days. Symptoms, which can come on suddenly, include abdominal pain and bloating, fever, and diarrhea.

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Dissection of the Aorta

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

The aorta is a large artery that carries blood out of your heart. If you experience a dissection of the aorta, it means that blood has entered the wall of the artery, between the inner and middle layers. This can happe...

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Hashimoto's Disease

Hashimoto's disease is a condition that damages the thyroid's ability to function properly. It can cause a goiter, or enlarged thyroid, which can make the front of the neck look swollen.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A burn is damage to the skin or body tissue from exposure to heat, ultra-violet light, radiation, hot liquid, steam, fire, flammable liquids or gases, chemicals, or electricity. Minor burns typically heal on their ow...

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The thyroid gland produces a hormone that controls how your cells use energy (metabolize). Hypothyroidism occurs when the body doesn't produce enough. Untreated, it can cause comlications like obesity and heart disease.

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Corns And Calluses

Corns and calluses are the terms given to patches of hard, thickened skin. These can be found anywhere on the body, but are typically found on the feet.

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Type 2 Diabetes Overview

Type 2 diabetes, is a common chronic metabolic disease that leads to abnormally high levels of blood sugar in the blood. This blood sugar is also referred to as "glucose."

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Anorexia Nervosa

Almost everyone worries about gaining too much weight. But in some people the worry becomes obsessive, causing a condition called anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that can result in severe weigh...

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Ichthyosis Vulgaris

Ichthyosis vulgaris is a skin condition that causes dry, dead skin cells to accumulate in patches on the surface of your skin. It's also known as "fish scale disease" because the dead skin accumulates in a simila...

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Stasis Dermatitis And Ulcers

Stasis dermatitis is skin inflammation caused by blood pooling in the veins in your legs. Pooling of blood in the veins of the legs is called venous insufficiency or venous stasis.Venous pooling causes the pressur...

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Diabetes Insipidus

Diabetes insipidus (DI) is a rare condition that occurs when your kidneys are not able to conserve water. It results in extreme thirst for water and frequent urination. There are several types of DI, and they can ofte...

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Hypoparathyroidism is a rare condition that occurs when the parathyroid glands in the neck do not produce enough parathyroid hormone (PTH). Everyone has four parathyroid glands, located near of behind the thyroid gland...

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Itchy skin, also known as pruritus , is an irritating sensation that makes you want to scratch to relieve the feeling. The possible causes for itchiness range from internal illnesses, such as kidney or liver disease, t...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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