How Can I Better Protect My Skin in the Winter?

Believe it or not, summer is not the only season when skincare matters! One of the most important functions of the skin is to protect us from things that may harm our health. As the largest organ of the human body, it is essential to take care of our skin the best way we can.1

In this article, you will learn more about the skin, common skin concerns related to HIV, and what you can do to keep your skin healthy in the colder months.

The skin protects us from harm

The skin (along with hair, nails, sweat, and oil glands) make up the integumentary system.1

Here are a few ways that that skin supports our body functions and overall health:1,2

  • Regulates body temperature while protecting you from extreme heat or cold
  • Helps prevent dehydration
  • Produced hormones that are important to the whole body
  • Allows the body to feel sensations such as warmth, cold, pressure, itching, and pain

How are skin problems related to HIV?

It is estimated that 90 percent of people living with HIV develop skin changes and symptoms along their condition journey. However, skin problems are a common health issue. Some people may experience skin problems unrelated to an HIV diagnosis.3,4

There are 3 main causes of skin problems in people living with HIV:

  • Interactions between the immune system and HIV
  • Infections (bacterial, fungal, or viral)
  • Potential HIV drug side effects

Interactions with the immune system

When a person acquires HIV, they may first experience seroconversion illness.4

Along with flu-like symptoms, seroconversion may also include a non-itchy, red rash that lasts between 2 to 3 weeks. As time goes by, the immune system becomes damaged. This may lead to red and itchy skin.4

Skin problems may also be signs of an improving immune system. For some, these skin problems occur when the immune system starts to recover with the help of HIV treatment. This is especially true with acne and folliculitis.4

Infections

Some of the conditions described here are most common in people with a low CD4 cell count. Starting HIV treatment will help reduce the likelihood of them occurring.4

  • Eczema (dry or irritated skin)
  • Dermatitis (inflammation of the skin)
  • Photodermatitis
  • Tinea
  • Folliculitis (infection of the follicles)
  • Small bumps due to viral infections (such as pox virus or Molluscum contagiosum) or fungal infections (such as cryptococcosis)
  • Genital or anal warts due to HPV
  • Herpes
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma (an AIDS-defining cancer)

Potential medicine side effects

Rashes are a common skin-related side effect of certain HIV medicines. In most cases, rashes are mild and go away on their own. If you experiencing any new side effects, talk to your doctor.4

For example, 15 to 20 percent of people who take the NNRTI nevirapine experience a mild rash that disappears as the body gets used to the drug. Although the medicine is no longer recommended as part of standard HIV treatment in the United States, it is still used in certain circumstances due to its low cost.5

7 tips to protect the skin in the winter

As we have learned so far, we have learned how the skin protects us from harm and common skin issues related to HIV. Here are 7 tips to protect your skin:6-8

1. Clothing. Proper clothing is the first line of defense against sun damage, especially against UV rays. For example, hats keep us warm but also protect the scalp and face from sun damage.

2. Broad-spectrum sunscreen. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 or higher daily. Apply the sunscreen to areas of the body that are exposed to the sun. If dry skin is also a problem for you, try a moisturizing sunscreen.

3. Moisturize. Apply moisturizer to the skin after bathing and washing your hands. This helps to seal in moisture while the skin is still damp.

4. Avoid peak sun hours. This varies by region, but peak sun hours tend to occur between 10 AM and 2 PM in the winter months.

5. Stay hydrated. There are different ways to get creative when staying hydrated. This includes setting a water drinking goal, healthy hot beverages (like unsweetened teas), infused water with fruits like oranges or strawberries, or homemade smoothies. If possible, talk to a nutritionist or primary care doctor about incorporating hydrating foods into your meals.

6. Keep up to date on skin examinations. If you notice any skin changes, always reach out to your doctor and/or dermatologist.

7. Take lukewarm showers or baths. During the winter months, it is not uncommon for people to use extremely hot water when taking a bath or shower. When combined with harsh soaps, a hot shower can really irritate our skin, making it itchy and uncomfortable. Instead, use lukewarm water and soothing soaps to help combat the "winter itch."

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