Scaling Skin
Scaling skin is the loss of the outer layer of the epidermis in large, scale-like flakes. Desquamation, dropping of scales, exfoliating, flakin...

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What Is Scaling Skin?

Scaling skin is the loss of the outer layer of the epidermis in large, scale-like flakes. The skin appears dry and cracked, though skin dryness isn’t always to blame. Scaling skin can also be called:

  • desquamation
  • dropping of scales
  • flaking skin
  • peeling skin
  • scaly skin

The outer layer of skin becomes dry and flaky and peels away from the body in large pieces with the appearance of scales. Scaling skin can be embarrassing, particularly if it occurs on the hands, feet, face, or other visible areas. The scales can itch and redden, and the condition can affect your quality of life.

Potential Causes of Scaling Skin

Several skin disorders and physical conditions can lead to scaling skin. Scaly skin is usually a symptom of an underlying issue. Related conditions and diagnoses may include:

  • actinic keratosis (a condition that starts with scaly skin but can progress to growths and skin cancer)
  • allergic eczema
  • skin ulcers
  • athlete’s foot
  • ingrown toenail
  • dermatitis
  • contact dermatitis
  • hypoparathyroidism (decreased function of the parathyroid glands)
  • icthyosis vulgaris (general skin disorder)
  • ringworm
  • psoriasis
  • eczema
  • Kawasaki disease (a rare blood vessel disease in children)
  • seborrheic eczema
  • allergic reaction
  • drug reaction
  • stasis dermatitis
  • toxic shock syndrome

Diagnosing the Underlying Cause of Scaling Skin

When you initially recognize scaling skin, you may simply apply lotion and not give it much thought. After all, it is very common for skin to sometimes scale during periods of cold, dry weather, or after prolonged sun exposure. However, if your scaling skin does not improve, spreads, or worsens, you may want to see your doctor about it.

Your doctor will ask about your medical history and the symptoms you have. If you can pinpoint when the symptoms first appeared, it may help your doctor determine a cause. Whether or not your skin itches or if anything provides relief could also help in diagnosing the problem.

The diagnosis is made based on the appearance of the skin, the history of exposure to any irritating or allergenic substances, and any accompanying symptoms.

Treatment Options for Scaling Skin

Treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms and the cause of the scaling skin. In cases of allergic reactions, discontinuing use or contact with the allergen can solve your problem. You should still see an allergist to confirm what is triggering the scales.

Many times, skin conditions that lead to scaling can be treated with a simple topical cream. Sometimes, oral medications are needed to address issues that are more than skin deep. Depending on the diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist for specialized treatment.

Medical Emergencies

Rarely is scaling skin a symptom of a medical emergency. However, sometimes it’s the sign of an allergic reaction, which can prove fatal if ignored. If scaling skin is accompanied by the following signs, seek medical attention immediately:

  • severe allergic reaction (hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, itching)
  • nausea and vomiting
  • severe weakness
  • high fever
  • sudden and severe blistering
Written by: JC Jones MA, RN
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP
Published: Jan 13, 2015
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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