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Chapped Hands

Alternate Names

  • hand eczema
  • dermatitis

Definition

Chapped hands are a result of very dry skin. Dry skin occurs when the moisture, or water, content of the skin is decreased for any reason.

What is going on in the body?

The surface of the skin holds a certain amount of water. When the water content decreases, the skin becomes dry, itchy, and uncomfortable. Some people have very sensitive skin that is easily irritated. Since a person's hands are often exposed to elements such as cold and moisture, hands may become irritated before other parts of the body do.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Some individuals have a genetic predisposition to dry skin. As people age, their skin tends to become drier. Dry air, resulting from winter's low humidity and the use of indoor heat, can cause skin to dry out. Long, hot baths and showers can also make skin dry.
Factors that increase a person's risk of chapped hands include the following:
  • frequent handwashing, which may be associated with the person's job
  • prolonged exposure to cold, dry weather
  • sunburn or windburn
  • allergic reactions to skin care products
  • history of a skin disorder, such as eczema

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

People subject to chapped hands should limit the amount of soap they use and the length of time their hands are exposed to the water. Some people may be able to use mild, moisturizing soap on their hands. A few need to limit soap use to the underarms and genitalia.
After patting the hands dry with a towel, the individual should apply a moisturizer. Two types of moisturizers are available over-the-counter:
  • cosmetic moisturizers, which provide immediate relief of dry skin but last only while they are applied to the skin. For people with mild or intermittent chapped hands, a cosmetic moisturizer may be enough to keep the skin from feeling dry.
  • therapeutic moisturizers, which have demonstrated the ability to act as a barrier that keeps water from evaporating from the skin. Many therapeutic moisturizers contain mineral oil or petroleum.
The healthcare professional may also prescribe creams containing alpha hydroxy acids or urea to get rid of dead skin and minimize itching. Other measures to help prevent chapped hands include:
  • wearing protective gloves whenever possible
  • avoiding prolonged exposure to water, such as swimming
  • avoiding exposure to chemicals that irritate the skin

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

An individual can generally diagnose his or her own chapped hands. If the condition persists or worsens, a healthcare professional may be consulted to rule out more serious skin disorders.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

If chapped hands are left untreated, the person may have the following problems:
  • difficulty doing things without wearing protective gloves
  • recurrent skin conditions such as outbreaks of eczema or skin inflammation
  • infections, which may occur when bacteria enter cracks in the skin

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Chapped hands are not contagious and pose no risk to others.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

The same guidelines for bathing and using moisturizers that are used to prevent chapped hands also can be used to treat chapped hands.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

There are no side effects to treatment, unless an individual is allergic to moisturizers. Those individuals should choose unscented or hypoallergenic moisturizers.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Moisturizer should be applied to the skin on a regular basis as needed. This will help prevent symptoms from returning

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

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