Scaly Skin

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What is scaly skin?

Scaly skin is a common symptom of dry skin and can occur anywhere on the body, although it is most common on the lower legs, arms and thighs. Irritation, inflammation and itching increase the rate of skin cell turnover, leading to scale formation. While scaly skin can be caused by a variety of conditions, most scaly skin will result from natural processes or environments, such as normal aging or cold, dry environments.

Scaly skin is also seen with inflammatory conditions of the skin (dermatitis), such as seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff. This condition, known as cradle cap in infants, produces white or yellowish scales and flaking of the scalp skin.

Atopic dermatitis is a form of skin inflammation that tends to run in families and is often seen in people with allergies, although the condition itself is most often not related to allergy. Eczema is a term that describes chronic, nonallergic skin inflammation that can produce scaly rashes that itch. Contact dermatitis is caused by contact either with an allergy-provoking substance or an irritant. Fungal and bacterial infections of the skin can also produce a rash that may be characterized by scaly skin.

Psoriasis is a chronic condition characterized by irritated areas on your skin that appear reddened, thickened, and may be scaly. There are different types of psoriasis, and it can affect all parts of the skin.

If your scaly skin is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care. You should also seek prompt medical care for scaly skin that is accompanied by signs of infection, such as fever; warmth, redness or swelling; or enlargement of lymph nodes.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms accompanying scaly skin, such as enlargement of lymph nodes or high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), as these could be signs of a life-threatening condition.

What other symptoms might occur with scaly skin?

Scaly skin may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Typical symptoms that may occur along with scaly skin

Scaly skin may accompany other symptoms related to dry skin including:

  • Development of cracks in the skin
  • Increased redness of skin
  • Itching feeling
  • Rash
  • Warmth
  • Swelling

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, scaly skin may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have scaly skin along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Enlargement of lymph nodes
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Open wounds from excessive scratching

What causes scaly skin?

Scaly skin can be caused by a variety of natural processes or environments, as well as certain washing habits. You may be able to avoid or reduce scaly skin by simple changes in your lifestyle and environment. Some of these steps include drinking plenty of water, choosing gentle soaps, applying moisturizers frequently, using a humidifier, especially with indoor heating in the winter, and keeping the duration of showers and baths short.

Natural causes of scaly skin

Scaly skin may be caused by natural processes or environments including:

  • Dry climates
  • Indoor heating
  • Normal aging

Habitual causes of scaly skin

Scaly skin can also be caused by certain hygiene or lifestyle habits including:

  • Bathing or showering too frequently
  • Bathing or showering in hot water
  • Excessive use of soap while bathing or showering
  • Ingredients in soaps and personal care products
  • Insufficient fluid intake
  • Irritating fabrics in clothes

Inflammatory causes of scaly skin

Dermatitis, or skin inflammation, has numerous causes including:

  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff or cradle cap)

Infectious causes of scaly skin

In some cases, infections of the skin can produce a rash or patches of scaly skin. Examples include:

Genetic causes of scaly skin

Ichthyosis is an inherited condition that results in skin that is dry, thickened, rough and scaly. This condition is sometimes associated with other inborn (congenital) abnormalities.

Serious or life-threatening causes of scaly skin

In some cases, scaly skin may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include rashes with high fever, enlargement of lymph nodes, and signs of deeper or widespread infection.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of scaly skin

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

  • How long have you had dry or scaly skin?
  • Where do you experience the scaly skin?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What do you do to relieve your symptoms?
  • What are your normal washing habits?
  • Are you drinking the recommended amount of water each day?

What are the potential complications of scaly skin?

Scaly skin is generally caused by natural processes or environments or by hygiene and lifestyle habits and rarely has serious potential complications. However, left untreated, chronic scaly skin may result in serious complications, such as the development of eczema. 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 including:

  • Cosmetic disfigurement
  • Open wounds or sores from scratching
  • Scarring
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 2
  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. Scaly skin. (Ichthyosis Vulgaris). skinsight. http://www.skinsight.com/adult/ichthyosisVulgaris.htm
  3. Xerosis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001838/
  4. Yosipovitch G, Bernhard JD. Clinical practice. Chronic pruritus. N Engl J Med 2013; 368:1625.
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