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Chicken skin is a common and harmless skin condition that causes raised lumps to appear in the skin, especially on the upper arms. The formal name for this condition is keratosis pilaris, but it is commonly known as “chicken skin” because of the distinctive bumpy appearance, which looks like the skin of a plucked chicken. There are treatments patients can use to manage it, and the bumps often resolve with age.
There appears to be a genetic link to this condition, and it tends to emerge during puberty. The patient may initially think that the lumps are acne, but they are actually formed by plugs of keratin inside the hair follicles. Instead of exfoliating, the keratin builds up and creates a lump. Depending on the patient, the lumps may be reddish or roughly flesh-toned. They can be found on the face and legs as well as the arms and may cause distress because of their unsightly appearance.
Low humidity can exacerbate the condition, as the skin dries out and becomes even harder to exfoliate. In the winter months, when indoor air can be very dry, the patient may notice that the chicken skin is much worse. Conditions like eczema can occur at the same time and may cause redness and itching in addition to the lumps.
Moisturizers will help minimize the bumps, especially if they contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids. Many patients can find an effective moisturizer on the shelf, and a doctor can also prescribe a more aggressive moisturizing cream with added exfoliants if it appears necessary. Regular exfoliation can also help; pumice stones can lift the upper layers of dead skin and remove the keratin plugs, as can a variety of other exfoliants. It is advisable to do a small patch test on the inside of the elbow before applying an exfoliating product to determine if it causes a skin reaction.
This condition is not contagious and does not pose any health risks. Patients with chicken skin who feel uncomfortable in public because of the appearance of their skin may find it helpful to adopt a rigorous skin care regimen to reduce the size of the bumps. It is not advisable to cover chicken skin with makeup, as it can make the condition worse by plugging the follicles and drying out the skin. The genetic nature of this condition makes it likely that a patient's case will be similar to that of family members, and patients with concerns can ask older family members if they experienced the condition in their youth, and how long it took for the bumps to resolve.