Hands that are red, cracked, itchy or sore may be more than just a cold-weather problem with dry skin. It could be a sign of dermatitis, or eczema, according to the December issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter.
Easily treatable with self-care, or medications for more severe problems, hand dermatitis is characterized by sporadic flare-ups of itchy, sore skin that is red, brown or grayish-colored. In some cases, the skin may also be swollen or develop blisters and sores.
The condition is not usually contagious, through frequent handshaking or any other means, but it can lower a person’s resistance to infections, the Mayo Clinic experts write. Cracked skin may be less able to block the entry of certain organisms.
Hand dermatitis comes in various forms, including contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic dermatitis and atopic dermatitis, the health letter states.
Contact dermatitis is a reaction to some cell-damaging irritant or allergen such as soap, perfume, cosmetics or cleaning products.
Dyshidrotic dermatitis usually occurs in response to stress and is characterized by a rash that typically starts on the sides of the fingers as small, itchy bumps, but can affect the feet as well as the hands.
Atopic dermatitis indicates a hypersensitivity to something in the environment and may occur together with symptoms of asthma or hay fever. This condition is usually genetic, and may also be particularly severe during the winter months. Like dyshidrotic dermatitis, it is not limited to the hands. It can affect just about any area of the body, although it usually affects the skin in the bend of the elbow and the back of the knees.
Commenting on the Mayo clinic letter, Dr. Donald Belsito agreed that hand dermatitis is “far from a cosmetic problem.”
Belsito, a professor and director of dermatology at the University of Kansas Medical Center told Reuters Health that the condition, which affects about 10 percent of women and 5 percent of men in the US, and as many as one in three healthcare workers and cosmetologists whose hands are in frequent contact with water, can be “very disabling, depending on its severity.”
It can have an emotional impact as well, he said, describing the stress that can be caused just by the prospect of shaking hands with another individual.
To avoid the progression of hand dermatitis, people affected by the condition should refrain from washing their hands too frequently, according to the Mayo clinic experts. Affected individuals should also be sure to use lukewarm or cool water when washing hands or bathing, to use a hypoallergenic soap, and to frequently apply generous amounts of a heavy moisturizing cream or ointment.
Besides these methods of self-care, prescription treatment is also available for those severely affected by hand dermatitis. Corticosteroid-containing ointments or lotions can provide some relief of itching as well as treat inflammation, the health letter indicates. Antihistamines and oral corticosteroids are also available to help ease intense itching or swelling.
Since there are many different treatments available, ranging from over-the-counter moisturizing lotions to prescription medications, Belsito advises that people affected by the condition seek treatment.
“If you’re having problems, consult a dermatologist,” he said.
SOURCE: Mayo Clinic Health Letter, December 2004.
Revision date: June 18, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD