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Overview

Rashes can be maddeningly itchy, no matter what the cause.

Doctors are likely to prescribe creams, lotions, or antihistamines for relief. They may also suggest cold compresses or other home remedies.

We all know not to scratch. That only makes it worse and may cause infection. Here are some relief measures to try, along with information about why they might work.

One of the fastest and easiest ways to stop the pain and itch of a rash is to apply cold. Whether you choose a cold compress, cool showers, or damp cloth, cold water can bring immediate relief and can help stop swelling, ease itching, and slow the progression of a rash.

Consider making or purchasing fabric bags stuffed with ice. They freeze well, and they can be heated for other uses.

How it works

Cold limits blood flow to an inflamed area. When you apply ice or cold water to a rash, it can help reduce swelling and inflammation and can stop itching almost immediately. For rashes that cover more of the body or that affect an area that is difficult to cover with an ice pack, a cool bath or shower may provide relief.

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Oats (avena sativa) have been used for centuries to treat many skin conditions, from eczema to burns. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of oatmeal in suspension (colloidal oatmeal) as a skin protectant in 2003. Today there are many over-the-counter skin products containing oatmeal.

Colloidal oatmeal dissolved in a bath can relieve itchiness. Commercial brands of oatmeal bath, like Aveeno, come in ready-to-use packets, measured for a single bath. Or you can very finely grind regular oatmeal in a food processor or blender and add 1 cup to bathwater.

How it works

The oatmeal works as an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant to relieve skin itchiness, dryness, and roughness. Studies have shown that the oils in oats work together to help repair skin.

Oats contain anti-inflammatory substances such as linoleic oil, oleic acid, and avenanthramides. These compounds reduce the body’s level of cytokines — proteins secreted by cells that can cause inflammation.

In other forms, such as creams, colloidal oatmeal has been shown to strengthen the skin barrier.

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The aloe vera plant has been used for centuries as an aid to health and skin care. You may be familiar with its use to promote the healing of small cuts in the kitchen.

In addition to wound healing, aloe has been used as an anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiviral, and antioxidant. Although it’s widely used, much of the evidence for its effectiveness is anecdotal, and more studies are needed.

How it works

Aloe contains vitamin B-12; calcium; magnesium; zinc; vitamins A, C, E; and essential fatty acids. It also contains enzymes, carbohydrates, and sterols, which are thought to contribute to its anti-inflammatory effects.

Aloe vera gel is considered safe to use when applied to the skin. It is possible to be allergic to aloe vera.

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Coconut oil, extracted from the meat and milk of coconuts, has been used for centuries in tropical countries as a cooking oil and skin moisturizer. It’s high in saturated fats and has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.

People allergic to coconut should test it first on one spot on the inner arm. If no reaction occurs within 24 hours, it should be safe to use. Discontinue use if irritation develops.

How it works

The medium-chain fatty acids in virgin coconut oil are thought to have antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and healing properties. A monoglyceride formed from lauric acid in coconut oil has been found to be an antibacterial. Lauric acid makes up about half the fat content of coconut oil.

A well-controlled clinical trial of virgin coconut oil and mineral oil in 2004 found that both significantly improved skin hydration and surface lipid levels in people with dry, scaly, itchy skin (xerosis). The coconut oil performed slightly better than the mineral oil.

A 2013 clinical trial of virgin coconut oil compared to mineral oil for the treatment of newborns with atopic dermatitis found similar results. Another study of pediatric patients with atopic dermatitis found that coconut oil was better than mineral oil in improving skin hydration and barrier function.

Other research found it decreased the severity of dermatitis and promoted wound healing.

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The tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is native to Australia where it was originally used by the aboriginal people as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. It’s an essential oil that is steam-distilled from the plant.

A frequently cited 2006 study from the American Society of Microbiology explains the antimicrobial properties of tea tree oil and why it may be an effective treatment for skin conditions such as acne. There is also anecdotal evidence that tea tree oil is useful in skin care.

How it works

Tea tree oil is reported to work against bacterial, viral, fungal, and protozoal infections of the skin. The mechanism is not fully understood. The terpenes (unsaturated hydrocarbons) in tea tree oil are thought to break up the cellular material of bacteria.

Tea tree oil is potent and can be irritating if it touches the skin without dilution in a cream or oil.

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Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is an old household remedy for itchy skin — rashes, poison ivy, or bug bites.

How it works

The chemical makeup of baking soda acts as a buffer, keeping solutions in stable acid-alkali balance. For this reason, baking soda may sooth your skin, putting the skin’s pH into balance.

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Indigo naturalis is a dark-blue powder made from a dried Chinese herb (Qing Dai).

Studies have found indigo naturalis may be effective as a topical treatment for mild to moderate psoriasis and conditions caused by inflammation.

How it works

The exact mechanism for how indigo naturalis reduces inflammation isn’t fully understood. It’s thought to involve the herb’s tryptanthrin and indirubin, which interact with inflammation producing interleukin-17. Research is ongoing into the substances that make up indigo naturalis.

There are risks when using any herbal remedy, including a lack of standards in purity and dosing, potential interactions with prescribed medications, and the danger of damaging organs such as the liver or kidneys.

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Apple cider vinegar is a centuries-old remedy for skin and other ailments. It’s known to have antimicrobial properties as well. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for its use, but only a limited number of scientific studies.

How it works

A 2018 study analyzed how apple cider vinegar affected common inflammation-causing bacteria: E. coli, S. aureus, and C. albicans. The study found that in laboratory cultures, apple cider vinegar was extremely effective in limiting the cytokines that produce inflammation.

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Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) have traditionally been used in a warm bath to soothe muscle aches and pains. But soaking in Epsom salts or magnesium- and mineral-rich Dead Sea salts may also help relieve itching and scaling.

How it works

Magnesium salts have been found to improve the skin barrier function, help the skin retain moisture, and reduce inflammation. Bathing in the Dead Sea has been used for centuries to heal skin ailments. A 2012 study of Dead Sea bathing combined with sun therapy showed good results for atopic dermatitis.

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Many different plant oils can be used effectively to moisturize itchy skin. These include:

  • olive oil
  • safflower seed oil
  • argan oil
  • jojoba
  • chamomile

Each oil has different compounds and different effects on the skin. The chemical compounds of these and other plant-derived oils are being studied for their effects on dermatitis.

How it works

In general, oils act to reduce inflammation and create a protective skin barrier.

  • Olive oil. This oil is known to reduce inflammation and help in wound healing. It contains oleic acid and smaller amounts of other fatty acids, plus 200 different chemical compounds.
  • Safflower seed. An anti-inflammatory, safflower seed oil is 70 percent polyunsaturated linoleic acid. Two of its ingredients have shown anti-inflammatory properties: luteolin and glucopyranoside.
  • Argan oil. Research suggests that, with daily use, this oil improves skin elasticity and hydration. It’s composed mostly of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and contains polyphenols, tocopherols, sterols, squalene, and triterpene alcohols. It also promotes softening and helps delivery of topical drugs.
  • Jojoba oil. An anti-inflammatory that also helps repair the skin barrier in dermatitis, jojoba oil is found in many cosmetics. It also helps you absorb topical drugs.
  • Chamomile oil. This herb is a traditional remedy for calming skin. You may be familiar with it as a relaxing herbal tea. But used topically, it has three ingredients (azulene, bisabolol, and farnesene) that produce anti-inflammatory or antihistamine effects. A 2010 study showed that chamomile in oil form decreased scratching and lowered histamine activity in mice who had atopic dermatitis.

Itch relief has a long history and many of today’s remedies are age-old cultural traditions. Research is ongoing into what exactly makes some of these remedies work.

These are just a few of the home remedies that can relieve itching from rashes. Many are also inexpensive common ingredients you may have in your pantry. Commercial products containing the same ingredients are often more expensive.

Note that most plant-based remedies can have side effects, and some of these remedies have not been thoroughly researched for safety. Every individual reacts differently. Check with your doctor before trying a remedy that may have side effects. Also, check with your doctor before using any new substance on your child’s rash. Caution is needed when applying anything on the skin of the elderly. If application of any product makes the rash worse, discontinue immediately and apply cool clothes.