Got dry skin, cracked lips and itchy feet?

Blame part of that on winter. Like a water-sucking vampire, the drop in humidity that marks this season can drain moisture from the skin.

But give blame, too, to the way we handle the change in weather.

Too often, experts say, we do the exact opposite of what we should -- exacerbating the dryness by turning up the heat in the home and the car, using electric blankets and space heaters, soaking in a hot tub or taking long, hot showers.

Doctors say this is the time of year when they see a lot of "winter itch" -- another name for eczema, or red, dry, scaly or itchy skin. The problem can be particularly acute among newcomers to areas like Texas who have not yet adjusted to the lower humidity, and seniors, where the problem is exacerbated by the lessening of natural oils and skin cell regeneration that ensue as we age.

To understand how to protect the skin, Dr. Mark Thieberg, a dermatologist at Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas, says it's important to understand how our skin protects us. Healthy, moisturized skin provides a barrier that can provide the first wall of defense against the dangers of our world -- abrasion, germs, heat and cold. At the same time, this tough outer layer, the epidermis, has a vulnerable side. It's intricately intertwined with the underlying dermis with its sensitive nerve endings that warn us about heat, cold, pressure and pain and the sweat glands that help us regulate our body temperature.

Thieberg says that the biggest medical concern about dry skin is that it can crack, leaving the body open and vulnerable to secondary as well as potentially life-threatening viral and bacterial infections. If the skin cracks, he advises patients to treat it with an antibiotic ointment, and then moisturize to help it heal.

Experts generally agree on a few main principles of winter skin care:

Turn down the heat; it's better to warm up with an extra sweater or extra blanket.

Take shorter and more tepid showers or baths. Yes, even though dry skin craves moisture, pelting the body with hot water is a big no-no, says Dr. Stanferd Kusch, a dermatologist on the medical staff at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano.

"Keep your showers as short as possible, and avoid saunas and hot tubs, as well," he says.

Instead, follow up a short, lukewarm shower or bath with a moisturizer to restore the protective layer of natural skin oils that water and soap can strip away.

Other experts advise using a soapless cleanser or a gentle soap that's free of fragrance, deodorant or antibacterial additives, as these are drying. Towel off gently instead of rubbing your skin.

Lather on moisturizer after you bathe and continue to moisturize throughout the day, particularly after washing hands. The most effective moisturizers are not necessarily the most expensive, but they are usually petroleum-based or contain ceramides or fatty acids.

Put balm on your lips and don't lick them because saliva irritates the skin. If you wear lipstick, which can be drying, it's especially important to put on balm beneath.