Why Does Psoriasis Itch?

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI on October 26, 2017Written by Stephanie Watson on October 23, 2015

Overview

People with psoriasis often describe the itchy feeling that psoriasis causes as burning, biting, and painful. Up to 90 percent of people with psoriasis say they itch, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF).

For many people with psoriasis, itching is the most annoying symptom of the condition. It can be severe enough to disrupt your sleep, destroy your concentration, and ruin your sex life. Here’s why you itch and how to relieve the discomfort so you can focus on your life.

What causes the itch?

When you have psoriasis, a problem with your immune system causes your body to produce too many skin cells, and it does so at a rate of production that’s too rapid. The dead cells move quickly to the outer layer of your skin and build up, forming red patches covered in flaky, silver scales. The skin also turns red and inflamed.

Even though the word “psoriasis” comes from the Greek word for “itch,” in the past, doctors didn’t consider itching a main symptom of the condition. Instead, they would determine the severity of the disease based on the number of scaly patches a person had. Today, the medical profession is increasingly recognizing itch as a major symptom of psoriasis.

The itch is caused by psoriasis scales, flakiness, and inflamed skin. However, it’s also possible to itch in areas of your body that aren’t covered by psoriasis scales.

Triggers that make itchiness worse

When you have an itch, the temptation is to scratch. Yet scratching can increase inflammation and make itching even worse. That creates a vicious pattern known as the itch-scratch cycle. Scratching can also damage the skin, leading to the formation of even more itchy plaques and even infection.

Stress is another itching trigger. When you’re under stress, you’re more likely to have a psoriasis flare, which can set off another bout of itching.

Weather conditions can also influence itching. In particular, very dry conditions and warm weather have both been known to trigger or exacerbate itchiness.

Ways to soothe the itch

No matter how bad the itching gets, try not to scratch or pick at your plaques. Scratching can make you bleed and worsen your psoriasis.

Many of the therapies your doctor prescribes to treat psoriasis, including phototherapy and steroids, can help with the itch. If it continues to bother you, try one of these remedies:

  • Rub on a thick cream or ointment to moisturize the skin. Look for ingredients such as glycerin, lanolin, and petrolatum, which are extra moisturizing. Put the lotion in the fridge first for it to have a cooling effect on your skin.
  • Use a scale-softening product containing salicylic acid or urea to remove cracked, flaky skin.
  • Apply an over-the-counter itch-relieving product containing ingredients such as calamine, hydrocortisone, camphor, benzocaine, or menthol. Check with your doctor first, though, because some anti-itch products can worsen skin irritation.
  • If itching keeps you up at night, use an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to help you sleep.
  • Take cool, short showers, and don’t bathe as often. Frequent hot showers can irritate skin even more. Moisturizing after your shower will also soothe your skin, and reduce your overall desire to itch.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation. These methods can relieve the stress that causes psoriasis flares, which might ease the itch.
  • Distract yourself. Draw a picture, read a book, or watch TV to keep your mind off the annoying itch.

If psoriasis itching continues to bother you, talk to your doctor about other ways to treat it.

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