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General Medical Questions
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Question : Every winter I get very painful cracks in the skin around the fingernails, especially my thumbs and index fingers. I don't think my skin is excessively dry, but I do wash my hands frequently. What causes this? How can I treat it? How do I prevent it?
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The Trusted Source
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Rebecca Campen, M.D., J.D., is an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. She divides her time between clinical practice of dermatology at the Massachusetts General Hospital and private practice in Savannah, Ga.

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February 02, 2011
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A:

Wintertime is hard on skin. When the air becomes cold and dry and the heat is turned on indoors, skin becomes dry. Activities and products that may not normally irritate skin in other seasons can result in skin drying and irritation.

The fingers, especially around the nails, are vulnerable to winter weather. Skin can become rough and red, and cracks can develop that are quite painful. Frequent hand washing can lead to "hand eczema" (skin inflammation), especially if you use strong soaps or your hands are in dish detergent water without the protection of rubber gloves. Perfumed lotions can also cause irritation.

To protect your hands, use a mild, unscented soap for washing hands and an unscented moisturizer afterwards. Apply white petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or Bacitracin ointment to cracks in your fingers. For excessively dry hands, apply moisturizer or Vaseline at night to your hands and cover your hands with white cotton gloves. For reddened, irritated skin, hydrocortisone cream can be helpful. You can buy this without a prescription.

If irritation does not go away, see your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe creams or ointments to help.

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