How to Handle Cold Weather When You Have Psoriasis
Does your psoriasis seem to flare up when the temperature drops? It does for Kristina Fulk. Twenty-eight-year-old Kristina has been living with psoriasis since she was a baby, and with psoriatic arthritis for the last five years. She notices her arthritis symptoms getting worse in cold conditions. “It definitely makes the pain from the arthritis so much worse,” Kristina says. “When the arthritis flares, usually the psoriasis does, too.”
In fact, about 60 percent of people living with psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis notice a difference in the winter months, according to findings reported by The National Psoriasis Foundation.
So, what is it about cold weather that causes some people to experience an influx in symptoms? And what can you do to prevent or manage this? Here’s what we know.
Blame the Irritation
The explanation isn’t as simple as cold weather being an instant trigger that flips on the switch for psoriasis.
“People with psoriasis have an overactive immune system and an overproduction of inflammatory mediators,” explains Dina Began, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at The Dermatology Specialists based in New York. “Since the whole immune system is overactive, a little extra irritation can fan the flames and cause the inflammation to grow.”
And colder weather certainly has the ability to irritate. During winter, the climate is often harsh, and the biting cold and dry air can compromise the skin’s moisture barrier. “That irritation can often be enough to cause a psoriatic flare-up,” says Began.
Unfortunately, she notes that spending all your time indoors during winter months isn’t necessarily better, since heating systems can often lead to a lot of dryness, as well. “Hot showers or baths can also be irritating, as can abrasive fabrics that are commonly found in winter clothes,” she says.
On top of all that, Began adds that the winter months can also mean an increase in viruses like the cold or flu. “Unfortunately, these illnesses have a compromising effect on the immune system and can cause further inflammation,” she says.
Prepping for Cold Weather
When it comes to preventing a cold-weather flare-up, “Preparation is key. The best offense is a good defense!” says Audrey Christie, a nurse and holistic wellness practitioner who specializes in autoimmune conditions. “Prolonged cold weather doesn’t surprise us. Depending on where you live, you know when the cold-weather season is coming.” So when winter is approaching, start taking measures to reduce the impact of its cold weather.
Christie advises patients in cold climates to supplement with vitamins D3 and K2. That’s because Vitamin D levels tend to go down in the winter, as sun exposure decreases, and this deficiency can contribute to increased autoimmunity and infections. Combining K2 with D3 supplements is said to improve the efficacy and safety of taking vitamin D supplements.
“And remember to continue your stress management,” Christie says, as this will help to prevent stress-related flares that could further compound your cold-weather flares. Popular methods include mindfulness meditation, positive affirmations, yoga, and exercise.
Began further advises patients to opt for wearing nonirritating fabrics (for example, cotton rather than wool) in winter months and to turn the shower temperature to lukewarm. “I also recommend keeping a humidifier around to maintain a healthy level of moisture in the air.”
As for winter illnesses, “Protect yourself by getting your flu shot, staying away from people who have colds, and keeping your hands clean,” says Began. “A few common-sense measures like these can make a big impact.”
Managing Winter Flares
Sometimes, flares still happen, no matter how hard you work to prevent them. If your psoriasis has flared in the winter, or at all, for that matter, Began recommends using a mild moisturizing soap and a moisturizer. (The National Psoriasis Foundation suggests Dove soap.)
“As a general rule, we tell patients with psoriasis to use a moisturizer that is thick and greasy—one that has some substance to it—and to apply it frequently, especially on skin that is damp after the shower,” says Began. “That way, it plays a more protective and reparative role.”
Wondering if it’d be worthwhile to consider moving to a warmer climate? That’s up to you, but know that there are no guarantees it’ll work.
There’s limited research on the subject, and what we do have doesn’t really back up opting for a change in climate as a treatment option. According to The National Psoriasis Foundation, one study in 2014 involved sending patients to Turkey for two months. There was a statistical difference in symptoms the group experienced during that time, but it was minimal—not enough for doctors to recommend people move in search of symptom relief.
“Psoriasis does tend to calm down in sunny, warmer climates,” Began says. “If someone has the ability to move to a warmer, humid, sunny climate and their skin reacts well, then more power to them! But there are certainly many factors—family, financial, social, and work-related, etc.—that will make this a very difficult choice for most people.”
For her part, Kristina isn’t looking to move to prevent her winter psoriatic arthritis flares. But she does work to stay as warm as she possibly can in winter months. “For the arthritis pain, the warmer I am at night the lesser the flare. So, on particularly cold nights, I sleep with a heated blanket.”
It’s all about paying attention to how the weather may be impacting your condition and finding what works for you for keeping flare-ups at bay and as mild as possible. Usually, that means following your dermatologist’s advice, keeping healthy habits, and practicing good self-care.