What causes cracked skin?

You can get cracked skin from environmental factors such as dry air, particularly during cold winter months. Certain medical disorders can also contribute to dry, cracked skin—especially disorders that cause nerve damage, reduced sweating, or dehydration—as well as other skin conditions.

Medical causes of cracked skin

Cracked skin may be caused by a number of medical conditions including:

  • Anhidrosis (reduced or loss of sweating) in diabetes, a chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy
  • Dermatitis (a skin inflammation which has many causes)
  • Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage caused by high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes)
  • Eczema (itchy, scaly skin)
  • Excess body weight (extra pressure on the heels can cause the skin to crack)
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Ichthyosis (a hereditary disease characterized by scaly skin)
  • Psoriasis (a skin disease that causes itchy or sore patches of thick, red skin with silvery scales)

Nonmedical causes of cracked skin

You can also get cracked skin from excessive exposure to external factors including:

  • Cold weather
  • Excessive exposure to hot water, detergents, or harsh chemicals
  • Forced-air heat
  • Prolonged standing (causing pressure on the skin of the heels)
  • Sandals, sling-back, or open-backed shoes (causing heel expansion on the sides that can crack the skin)
  • Walking barefoot

Serious or life-threatening causes of cracked skin

In some cases, cracked skin may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated by your healthcare provider. These include:

  • Diabetes (a chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Malnutrition
  • Nondiabetic neuropathy (nerve damage)
  • Sjogren’s syndrome (an autoimmune disease affecting the glands that produce sweat, tears and saliva)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of cracked skin

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

  • How long have you had cracked skin?
  • Have you had cracked skin in other parts of your body?
  • Have you had redness, scaling or itching?
  • Do you feel warmth near the site?
  • Has there been any bleeding at or near the affected site?
  • Have you had a rash recently or do you have a rash now?
  • Have you had any blistering, oozing or pus near your cracked skin?
  • Have you had a fever?
  • Do you have any allergies?
  • Have you had any insect bites?

What are the potential complications of cracked skin?

In you have deep fissures, cracked skin can lead to infections. In rare cases, if left untreated, these skin infections can become systemic and lead to sepsis, a life-threatening bacterial blood infection. It is important that you treat any crack or opening in your skin to avoid complications. Also, because cracked skin can be due to serious diseases, 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 including:

  • Deepening fissures
  • Deep-tissue skin infections
  • Scarring and disfigurement
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
  • Spreading skin infection

References:

Winter dry skin. University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics Health Topics. http://www.uihealthcare.com/topics/skinhealth/winterskin.html. Accessed April 21, 2011.

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. Accessed April 21, 2011.

INTRODUCTION

What is cracked skin?

Cracked skin is a classic symptom of dry skin, but it can also occur in response to scratches or other trauma, or infection. When the skin dries, it can become rough and flaky, with small tears that can lead to deeper cracks called fissures, which can extend into the deeper layers of the skin.... Read more about cracked skinintroduction

SYMPTOMS

What other symptoms might occur with cracked skin?

Cracked skin may accompany other symptoms affecting the skin which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that most frequently accompany cracks in the skin are scaling and itchiness, as well as redness and dryness of the surrounding skin.... Read more about cracked skinsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Skin, Hair and Nails


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