Itchy skin, also known as pruritus, is an irritating and uncontrollable sensation that makes you want to scratch to relieve the feeling. The possible causes for itchiness range from internal illnesses, such as kidney or liver disease, to skin rashes, allergies, and dermatitis.
It’s important to see a doctor for itchiness if the cause isn’t obvious. A doctor can find the underlying cause and provide treatments for relief. Several home remedies such as over-the-counter creams and moisturizers work well for itching.
Causes of Itching
Itchiness can be generalized (all over the body) or localized to one small region or spot. The possible causes are numerous and varied. It may be a result of something very serious, such as kidney failure or diabetes (though uncommon), or can come from something less severe, such as dry skin or insect bites (more likely).
Many skin conditions that are common can cause itchy skin. The following can affect any area of skin on the body:
- dermatitis: inflammation of the skin
- eczema: a chronic skin disorder that includes itchy, scaly rashes
- psoriasis: an autoimmune disease that causes skin redness and irritation, usually in the form of plaques
- dermatographism: a raised, red, itchy rash caused by pressure on the skin
Infections that cause itching include:
- chicken pox
- fungal rashes
- mites, including bedbugs
Substances that irritate the skin and make it itchy are common. Plants such as poison ivy and oak and insects such as mosquitoes produce substances that cause itching. Some people get itchy when in contact with wool, perfumes, certain soaps or dyes, and chemicals. Allergies, including food allergies, can irritate the skin as well.
Some internal diseases that may be very serious cause itching. The following diseases may cause generalized itching, but the skin usually appears normal:
- liver disease
- thyroid disease
- kidney failure
Nervous System Disorders
Other diseases can cause itching as well, especially those that affect the nerves. These include:
- multiple sclerosis
The following common medicines often cause rashes and widespread itching:
- antibiotics (especially sulfa-based antibiotics)
- narcotic painkillers
- anti-convulsant medications
Some women experience itching when pregnant. It usually occurs on the breasts, arms, abdomen, or thighs. Sometimes this is due to a preexisting condition, such as eczema, that is made worse by the pregnancy.
When to Seek Medical Help
See your doctor if:
- you don’t know what’s causing your itching
- it’s severe
- you experience other symptoms along with the itching.
It’s important to see your doctor for a diagnosis when the cause isn’t obvious because some of the causes of itching are serious, yet treatable conditions.
Diagnosing the Cause of Your Itch
Your doctor will give you a physical examination and will ask you several questions about your symptoms, such as:
- How long have you had the irritation?
- Does it come and go?
- Have you been in contact with any irritating substances?
- Do you have allergies?
- Where is the itching most severe?
- What medications are you taking (or have recently taken)?
You may need to undergo more tests if your doctor can’t determine the cause of your itching from your answers and a physical exam. Tests include:
- blood test: may indicate an underlying condition
- test of your thyroid function: can rule out thyroid issues
- skin test: to determine if you’re having an allergic reaction to something
- scraping or biopsy of your skin: can determine if you have an infection
Once your doctor has pinpointed the cause of your itchiness, you can be treated. If the cause is a disease or infection, your doctor will suggest the best course of treatment for the underlying problem. When the cause is more superficial, you may receive a prescription for a cream that will help relieve the itching.
Home Care for Itching
At home, there are several things you can do to prevent and relieve itchy skin. Try:
- using a good moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated
- avoiding scratching, which can worsen the itch
- staying away from soaps, detergents, and other substances that contain perfumes and color dyes
- taking a cool bath with oatmeal or baking soda
- rying over-the-counter anti-itch creams
- taking an oral antihistamine
Most itching is treatable and doesn’t indicate a serious problem. However, it’s best to check with your doctor to confirm a diagnosis and treatment.