One of the most common challenges for people with polycythemia vera (PV) is itching skin.
It can be mildly annoying or make it nearly impossible to think about anything else. Thankfully, medications and treatments can help soothe PV itching.
You may need to try a few PV treatments before you find what works for you. Read on for some ideas.
It’s not exactly known why PV causes your skin to itch. Itchy skin is a common symptom of some other blood cancers.
Research has shown that people with PV tend to have higher levels of mast cells in their blood.
Mast cells are involved in the immune system’s allergic response. They release histamines, which cause allergic symptoms, including itching skin.
It’s possible that the high levels of blood cells in PV trigger the creation of more mast cells. More research is needed to better understand what’s going on.
Many people with PV also experience night sweats — a common symptom of many types of blood cancer. Sweat on your skin’s surface can make you itch more.
Here are some tips to deal with night sweats:
- Keep your bedroom cool. You may want to open windows or use a fan. Placing a damp washcloth on your forehead can help.
- Have a quiet bedtime routine. Some people notice that exercising too close to bedtime causes more night sweats. You may also try practicing gentle yoga or meditation before bed.
- Dress lightly for bed. Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing to bed. Breathable fabrics, such as cotton, are best.
Several prescription medications and over-the-counter (OTC) products help relieve the PV itching.
The treatment your doctor recommends will depend on the severity and frequency of your symptoms. Some options to soothe your itching skin include:
- Aspirin. Many people with PV take low-dose aspirin daily to thin the blood. Aspirin may also help reduce the itch.
- Antihistamines. These medications reduce the histamine in your body, which is responsible for a variety of allergic responses, including itching skin. Your doctor or pharmacist can recommend the right OTC or prescription medication for you.
- Antidepressants. A group of prescription drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be helpful. Regular contact with your healthcare team ensures you have the right type and dose for you.
- UV light therapy (phototherapy). UV light therapy can be helpful for many skin conditions including PV itching. It’s done in a medically supervised setting because too much UV can make your skin feel worse.
- Interferon alfa. This medication is often part of PV treatment and can be quite effective at improving itching skin. It’s unclear exactly why it helps.
Dry skin feels itchier. A daily moisturizing routine helps add lubrication and hold moisture in your skin to reduce itching.
Look for a fragrance-free lotion or skin cream made for sensitive skin. Apply after a bath or shower to lock in moisture. You may find it’s especially helpful in colder weather.
Do your best to avoid scratching, which damages skin and can make it itchier. This can feel impossible at times.
If you catch yourself scratching, try some deep breathing to take your mind off the discomfort until you can do something about it. Apply moisturizer and a cold cloth as soon as possible.
The following lifestyle strategies also help to manage itching skin:
- Dress comfortably. Soft fabrics and loose-fitting clothing are less likely to irritate your skin. Avoid scratchy tags or seams that cause more irritation.
- Drink enough fluids. Staying hydrated is important for skin health. Drinking plenty of liquids helps your skin hold on to more moisture.
- Stay comfortably active. Excess moisture on your skin can make you itchier. Choose activities that feel good for your body and wear loose-fitting clothing that wicks away sweat.
- Keep nails trimmed. Keep nails short and smooth to prevent damage to your skin.
Contact with water is one of the most common triggers for people with PV.
Hot or warm water tends to be worse, but even cold water can make your skin itchy. Tracking your symptoms helps you to narrow down your specific triggers.
The following recommendations may help:
- Avoid hot showers or baths.
- Don’t use hot tubs.
- Take shorter and less frequent showers and baths.
- Use gentle, unscented soaps.
- Pat skin dry (don’t rub).
- Use lotion right after bathing or showering.
- Choose fragrance-free and alcohol-free skin products.
It’s always important to keep your healthcare team up to date with how you’re feeling. Tell your doctor if you notice:
- a significant increase in PV itching
- itching affecting a greater area of your body
- the normal strategies you use to manage your itchiness no longer work
- open sores from scratching so much
- any other change in your health
Itching skin is a common symptom of PV. Medications and UV therapy can help. You can also reduce itchiness by:
- regularly applying moisturizer to your skin
- avoiding hot water
- dressing comfortably
Let your doctor know if you notice a change in your symptoms. They can help you find other strategies to feel better.