There’s an old wives’ tale about knowing that your wound is healing because it itches.
This is one piece of folklore passed from generation to generation that’s supported by science. Research over the years has shown that wounds both big and small tend to itch when they’re healing.
You have sensitive nerves beneath your skin. They react whenever there’s an irritation on your skin. This could be something simple (like a bug crawling on your skin), or more complex (like a cut that’s healing).
During the wound-healing process, these nerves signal the spinal cord that skin is being stimulated. The brain perceives those signals as itchy.
These nerves are also sensitive to chemicals, such as histamine, which the body releases in response to an injury. Histamine supports skin cell regrowth and is crucial to the body’s healing process. But, it can cause a reaction — including itching — similar to an allergy.
New skin growth can also cause itchiness. As collagen cells expand and new skin begins to grow on the wound, it results in a scab. When a scab is dry and crusty, it stimulates an itchy sensation.
These messages of itchiness from your brain are ones that you should ignore. Scratching a wounded area or picking at a scab can tear new skin cells that your body is producing to heal the wound. Scratching the itch can reinjure the wound and set back the healing process.
Most wounds, large and small, go through a four-step healing process.
Step 1: The bleeding stage
Also called the hemostasis stage, this is the point that the injury occurs. Your body responds to the injury by activating an outpouring of blood, lymphatic fluid, and coagulation (clotting) to stop the loss of blood.
Step 2: The defensive/inflammatory stage
This is the beginning of the repair process. It starts immediately after the injury occurs and typically lasts up to six days. Your body sends white blood cells to combat harmful bacteria at the wound site, swelling at the wound site starts and the skin begins the repair process.
Step 3: The proliferative stage
Commonly lasting anywhere from one to four weeks, the proliferative stage is also known as the granulation stage or tissue-regrowth stage. This is where you can see the signs of skin repair: scabs protecting the new skin cells that are growing.
Step 4: The scarring stage
Also referred to as the maturation phase or remodeling stage, this stage can last from three weeks to four years. During this stage, the scab falls off as the new tissue gains strength and flexibility and collagen fibers form scars.
When your skin has been cut, your first step in wound care is to wash the wound with warm water and a mild soap. Aside from cleaning, this might alleviate some of the itch and irritation. Be gentle so you don’t damage new skin growth.
Some other actions to consider for helping with the itch include:
- Keep the wounded area moisturized.
- Protect the area with a sterilized covering that will protect it and help you avoid scratching and touching the healing area.
- Apply a cold compress — for no longer than 20 minutes — to reduce inflammation and itch.
- Wear loose fitting clothing to limit irritation to the wounded area.
- Wear breathable clothing to reduce sweat buildup in the healing area.
- Talk to your doctor about the positives and negatives of applying an over-the-counter anti-itch medication containing cortisone.
As your wound heals, it’s going to itch. Don’t scratch it! There are a few steps you can take to reduce the itch, but patience is what you really need.
Typically, the itch will be gone in four weeks or less, but that’s dependent on many factors including the size and depth of the wound.
After about a month, if your wound has not healed property or the itching persists, have your doctor inspect the wounded area to make sure you don’t have an infection or other serious health condition. Contact your doctor sooner if you suspect the wound is infected.