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Q: As temperatures get cooler and I turn on the heater, my skin gets very dry, itchy and red. How do I know if it's dry skin or eczema?

A: Dry skin is caused by sun damage, water exposure and situations that make the skin lose its ability to maintain normal moisture levels. Eczema, however, has no exact cause but is believed to be linked to a mild to moderate autoimmune disorder that causes the skin to have an allergic reaction to irritants.

Eczema is almost always severely itchy; sometimes itching even starts before the rash appears. The rash itself commonly appears on the face, back of the knees, wrists, hands and feet. The skin appears very dry, thickened, red and sometimes scaly. Eczema can have fluid-filled blisters and red rashes not usually seen in regular dry skin.

Dry skin can be treated with simple lifestyle changes, such as bathing in moderate temperature water and applying moisturizer immediately after bathing. The same methods can be used to treat eczema, but most people will be advised to use eczema-specific topical ointments to reduce inflammation and relieve itching. Eczema patients should also avoid any food allergens that may cause flare-ups and wear non-synthetic fabrics, like 100 percent cotton. In general, use mild cleansers instead of soaps, detergents "free" of common allergens and avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets altogether.

By Dr. Karin Covi and Susong Dermatology; member and Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society

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