While not the most talked-about pregnancy woe (swollen feet and back pain, anyone?) itching, also known as pruritus, is a very common complaint. Some women experience itching all over, while others feel it specifically on certain body parts such as their hands, feet, belly, or chest.
Most itching is just downright annoying, but severe itching can lead to loss of sleep or even be a sign of a very serious medical problem. We’ll talk about what could be causing your itchy feet, some treatments you can try, and when to call your doctor.
Hormonal skin changes
Your hormones are going crazy (as you’ve probably already noticed), and all that extra action from your endocrine system can cause your skin to get irritated.
Plus, your immune system works differently while you’re pregnant — it temporarily increases or suppresses certain functions so that your baby can grow in the best way possible.
The combination of hormones and immune system changes can lead to some pregnancy-specific skin conditions that may cause itchy feet.
You may notice:
- small, itchy bumps that resemble bug bites (prurigo)
- rash-like, itchy hives (PUPP)
- red, scaly, itchy patches (eczema or AEP)
The good news is that these skin conditions will not harm your baby and should go away after you deliver.
Again thanks to our good friends, the hormones, some pregnant women find that their nerves just seem more sensitive during pregnancy.
So seemingly “normal” things like sweating, being warm, wearing tight clothing, chafing, wearing the wrong shoes, or just lying in your bed can make your feet itchy.
Not the kind of stretching you do in your prenatal yoga class — we’re talking about stretching of the skin. Your body goes through some amazing changes to house that rapidly growing baby, and stretching the skin, on your abdomen, thighs, buttocks, and breasts, is one of them.
Depending on your genes, hormones, and rate of weight gain you may be more or less prone to developing stretch marks (striae gravidarum). Stretch marks can be a source of itching.
While your feet are unlikely to develop stretch marks, they do bear extra weight during pregnancy and the ligaments undergo some stretching of their own that can lead to an itching sensation.
If you experienced psoriasis prior to pregnancy, you might get a welcome break from symptoms while you are pregnant. But, some women continue to experience painful, itchy plaques even during pregnancy, which can occur on your feet.
Now for the rare, but serious, reason for itchy feet during pregnancy: intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. This is a liver condition that, if it occurs, usually shows up during the third trimester.
Normally, your liver helps send bile to your digestive tract, where it aids in breaking down dietary fat.
Hormonal and digestive changes, as well as possible genetic predisposition, can cause the liver to not work like it should, which allows bile acids to build up in your body. This buildup of bile can cause some intense itching, particularly on your hands and feet.
Cholestasis can be dangerous for your baby. It can increase the risk of premature birth, fetal distress, and even stillbirth.
Call your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms
- severe itching
- increase in itching
- itching that gets worse at night
- yellowish tinge to your skin or eyes (jaundice)
- dark urine
- pale or grey bowel movements
- right-sided upper abdominal pain
- nausea or upset stomach
For typical causes of itchy feet during pregnancy, there are several remedies you can try to get some relief and much-needed rest. These include:
- Soothing oatmeal baths. This natural and effective remedy is simple to try at home — and what pregnant mama doesn’t need a nice soak in the tub? Do check with your doctor before you add essential oils to your soak, as some are not safe for pregnancy or can further irritate your skin.
- Cold. Cool footbaths, cold washcloths, or even ice packs wrapped in towels can be applied to your feet to help soothe itchy skin. Don’t apply ice for more than 15 minutes.
- New socks. Loose-fitting socks made of natural, breathable fibers (such as cotton or even wool) can help keep feet from becoming sweaty and itchy.
- Massage. A foot massage — performed by you, your partner, or any willing pal — may help distract your nerves and decrease itchiness. Just be sure to stroke gently and avoid acupressure points on your feet and around your ankles, as some spots may stimulate uterine contractions. (Talk to your OB-GYN if you have any questions about this, especially if you’re far from your due date.)
- Moisturizers. A simple, unscented moisturizer such as cocoa butter, shea butter, or colloidal oatmeal can help soothe itchy feet. Check with your doctor before using any kind of topical medications, such as calamine lotion or lotion with diphenhydramine (Benadryl), as some may not be safe during pregnancy.
- Medications. If your itchy feet are caused by eczema or psoriasis, check with your doctor before using medications, even if they are over the counter. Many of these meds are not safe to use during pregnancy, and your doctor can help find safer alternatives. One preferred treatment for psoriasis during pregnancy is ultraviolet B phototherapy. If your itchy feet are keeping you from sleeping, in spite of trying at-home remedies, your doctor may be able to recommend a mild sleep aid to help you rest in spite of the discomfort.
If you think you have any symptoms of cholestasis, call your doctor right away. They may want to do blood tests to check your liver function, as well as an ultrasound called a biophysical profile to check on your baby’s movement, breathing, heartbeat, blood flow, and fluid levels.
If you do have cholestasis, your doctor will monitor you and your baby more frequently. Some possible treatments and tests include:
- nonstress test and biophysical profile
- blood work to check your liver function
- soaking itchy areas in cool or lukewarm water
- medication, such as ursodiol, to help decrease bile accumulation
- early delivery of your baby
While it may sound scary to deliver your baby earlier than you expected, your doctor will carefully weigh the risks of both early delivery and continuing your pregnancy with cholestasis.
The risks of cholestasis can be high, so it is often safer to deliver your baby, especially if you are at least 37 weeks pregnant. Babies delivered at this time typically do amazingly well, and you get to snuggle your bundle a little sooner!
Pregnancy is a wonderful, bumpy (pun intended) ride. In addition to all of the excitement and anticipation, there may be some less-than-glamorous side effects along the way. One of these may be itchy feet.
Itchy feet can be caused by a variety of hormonal and immunological changes that are normal during pregnancy. There are options to relieve your discomfort at home, such as oatmeal baths, cold packs, and moisturizers. If these aren’t effective, your doctor may be able to help.
In rare cases, itchy feet can be a sign of a serious medical problem. It’s important to call a doctor if you’re concerned about any of your symptoms so that they can help keep you and your baby safe. They will be able to monitor your baby, as well as recommend medication or delivery if needed.