Flaky Skin

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What is flaky skin?

Healthy skin has a 10-20% water content. Flaky skin occurs when the protective natural oil produced by the skin begins to dry up. As a result, water loss in dry skin is 75 times greater than normal skin. As the skin loses both oil (sebum) and water, the skin begins to dry out and its topmost surface dies and begins to peel away, usually in very small, thin slivers called flakes. Flaky skin can be differentiated from a red rash with blisters or from scales (a raised, firm area that resembles fish scales) by the way it looks.

Cold weather contributes to flaky skin, as a combination of cold dry air outside and forced-air heat and lack of humidity inside combine to dry out the skin rapidly. However, flaky skin can also be a response to extended exposure to heat, such as in hot baths, heated swimming pools, hot tubs, and saunas. In addition, certain drugs, skin cleansers, and chemicals can dry out the skin and cause flaking. Finally, flaky skin is also a symptom of a number of specific disorders.

Flaky skin can sometimes resolve by itself or with appropriate moisturizing skin care. However, when flaky skin is caused by disease, it is important that you receive treatment for that underlying cause, in addition to changing your skin care regimen.

Dry, flaky skin can create an area of easy entry for bacteria into the skin. Seek prompt medical care if you have flaky skin and exhibit other symptoms, including cracks or breaks in your skin; red, swollen areas that are hot and tender; infected sores inside your mouth; unexpected joint stiffness and pain; blurred vision; genital sores; frequent fevers; excessive fatigue; unexplained weight loss; or frequent diarrhea. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if an area that is hot, tender, red or swollen spreads rapidly to adjacent areas.

Seek prompt medical care if your flaky skin is persistent or causes you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with flaky skin?

Flaky skin may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that frequently affect the skin may also involve other body systems.

Skin symptoms that may occur along with flaky skin

Flaky skin may accompany other symptoms affecting the skin including:

  • Burning feeling
  • Cracked skin
  • Crumbling nails
  • Crusting sores
  • Itchy skin
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Scaly skin
  • Silver or white plaques

Other symptoms that may occur along with flaky skin

Flaky skin may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Abnormal sweating
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Chronic or persistent diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Genital sores
  • Infected sores inside your mouth
  • Joint pain
  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, flaky skin may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated by a health care provider. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have flaky skin along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Blurred or double vision
  • Chronic or persistent diarrhea
  • Frequent fevers
  • Frequent urination
  • Genital sores
  • Infected mouth sores
  • Joint stiffness and pain
  • Severe fatigue
  • Thirst
  • Unexplained weight loss

What causes flaky skin?

Flaky skin can have environmental causes, such as temperature extremes, as cold weather outside and forced-air heat inside combine to rapidly dry out the skin. However, flaky skin can also be a response to extended exposure to heat, such as in hot baths, heated swimming pools, hot tubs, and saunas. In addition, certain drugs and chemicals can dry out the skin and cause flaking.

Finally, flaky skin is also a symptom of a number of specific disorders, including dry skin (xerosis), skin irritation, stress, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff), yeast infection, fungal infection, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, rosacea (chronic facial redness), psoriasis (chronic disorder resulting in red, scaly skin), contact dermatitis (localized skin inflammation), allergies, and drug reactions.

Infectious causes of flaky skin

Flaky skin may be caused by infections including:

  • Fungal infections such as tinea

  • HIV infection

  • Streptococcal or staphylococcal bacterial infections

  • Yeast infections

    Noninfectious causes of flaky skin

    Flaky skin can also be caused by other disorders unrelated to infectious agents including:

    • Allergic reactions

    • Anemia

    • Atopic dermatitis (scaly, itchy rash)

    • Contact dermatitis (localized skin inflammation)

    • Eczema

    • Inherited skin disorders (ichthyosis)

    • Liver and gallbladder disease

    • Psoriasis (chronic disorder resulting in red, scaly skin)

    • Rosacea (chronic facial redness)

    • Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff)

    • Stress

    • Xerosis (very dry skin)

    Serious or life-threatening causes of flaky skin

    In some cases, flaky skin may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated. These include:

    • Autoimmune disorders

    • Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection

    • Cancer (especially lymphoma, mycosis fungoides)

    • Neuropathies (nerve damage in the legs and feet)

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of flaky skin

    To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your flaky skin including:

    • How long have you had flaky skin?

    • Do you have flaky skin in any other parts of your body?

    • Have you had any redness or itching, or felt warmth near the affected site?

    • Do you have any cracks or open sores?

    • Have you had any blistering, oozing or pus?

    • Have you had a fever?

    • Do you have any allergies, or have you had any insect bites?

    • Do you have any other symptoms?

    • What medications are you taking?

    • What skin care products do you use regularly?

    What are the potential complications of flaky skin?

    Dry, flaky skin seldom has any complications on its own. However, any damaged area of skin, especially dry skin, can split or crack and create an area of easy entry for bacteria into the skin. If this happens, complications from skin infections can develop.

    If your flaky skin leads to an infection, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications of the infection including:

    • Deep-tissue skin infections

    • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)

    • Spread of infection

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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 10
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    THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
    1. Dry skin. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003250.htm.
    2. Dry skin. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. http://www.aocd.org/skin/dermatologic_diseases/dry_skin.html.
    3. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009.