Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. It causes a loss in cognitive function.

Most people are aware of the cognitive issues of Alzheimer’s disease. Such issues include memory loss and personality changes. But it’s also possible for someone with Alzheimer’s to scratch or pick at their skin more frequently.

This article will discuss the causes of skin itching in Alzheimer’s. It will also review what you can do to help your loved one ease this symptom.

As you age, your skin becomes thinner and drier, making it more prone to itchiness. Skin itching (pruritus) in older adults may also be due to a variety of factors, including:

  • dry air
  • not drinking enough fluids
  • medication side effects

Cognitive changes

Skin scratching or picking in Alzheimer’s may be due to changes in the brain. Some cognitive changes may bring on self-injury behaviors. In an older 2005 multicenter study on patients with dementia in nursing homes, 22% of residents exhibited scratching and other self-injury behaviors.

In such cases, self-injuries to the skin may be due to a reduced ability to communicate verbally. Instead of expressing anger or frustration, for example, your loved one might resort to skin scratching.

Excoriation disorder

Chronic skin picking may be related to dermatillomania, or excoriation disorder. While common in people with anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions, it’s also possible to develop skin picking as a result of dementia.


Your loved one may have itchy skin due to an underlying skin disease. According to one study, psoriasis is one possible comorbidity with Alzheimer’s. While more research is needed to determine a direct link, clinical studies have so far revealed that older adults with psoriasis have a higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s.

Psoriasis can cause itchy, painful skin plaques. These plaques appear raised and red to silver in color, depending on your skin tone. If you notice any of these symptoms in your loved one, contact a doctor or dermatologist.

How common is scratching in people with Alzheimer’s?

The exact incidence of scratching in people with Alzheimer’s is unknown. However, a 2020 study of older adults with dementia and itchy skin found that about 54% regularly scratched.

Dry skin and subsequent itching are relatively common in older adults. Seeing your loved one scratching at their skin isn’t automatically a sign that they may have Alzheimer’s.

But if you notice increased skin scratching and picking along with cognitive symptoms, you might consider taking your loved one to a doctor for evaluation. Other signs of Alzheimer’s may include:

  • memory problems, which may interfere with daily activities as the disease progresses
  • struggles with remembering friends and loved ones (in later stages)
  • difficulty finding words when communicating
  • repeating questions
  • visual and spatial difficulties
  • decreased sense of smell
  • movement difficulties
  • wandering or getting lost
  • personality or behavioral changes
  • delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia (in later stages)

Is scratching a sign that Alzheimer’s is getting worse?

Because there are numerous causes of itchy skin in older adults, scratching isn’t necessarily a sign that your loved one’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse. But the constant need to scratch or pick at their skin could suggest worsening behavioral changes or issues with self-care.

In addition to skin scratching, it’s important to be aware of signs of cognitive decline, including memory and non-memory aspects.

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Your loved one’s skin picking and scratching can be frustrating and worrisome. Still, it’s important to resist the urge to tell them to just “stop.” Not only is this ineffective, it can also cause stress to your loved one and may further increase their urge to scratch.

Instead, you can take steps to help your loved one feel relief from dry, itchy skin throughout their daily routine. Examples include:

  • Take fewer baths or showers and limit total bathing time to 10 minutes.
  • Use lukewarm — not hot — water for bathing.
  • Use mild, unscented soaps that are less irritating to the skin.
  • Add colloidal oatmeal to your loved one’s bath. Just be aware that this can also make the bottom of the tub extra slippery.
  • Dress your loved one in loose, cotton-based clothing.
  • Install a portable humidifier in your loved one’s bedroom to help keep the air moist.
  • Apply cold compresses to the skin for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, focusing on the itchy site.
  • Apply calamine lotion to itchy areas of the skin.
  • Keep your loved one’s nails short. This will reduce the chances of injury to the skin should they start scratching.

You may also find that distracting your loved one from itching their skin may help them overcome the urge to scratch. An activity that involves their hands may be especially helpful, as long as it’s an activity they enjoy.

Also, the more your loved one scratches their skin, the easier it may bleed and become infected. Contact a doctor if you notice possible signs of skin infection, such as oozing from the wound, redness, or swelling.

Support for caregivers

When caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, it’s also important to get support for yourself, too. Consider the free resources offered by the Alzheimer’s Association, the National Institute on Aging, and the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America to get started.

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While the exact incidence isn’t known, skin scratching and picking is common among people with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than being a standalone symptom of this disease, skin scratching may instead be due to other cognitive changes your loved one may be experiencing.

If your loved one continues to have itchy skin without relief, or if they have recurring skin infections from scratching, consider reaching out to a dermatologist for help.