Itchy skin is an uncomfortable, irritating sensation that makes you want to scratch. Also known as pruritus (proo-RIE-tus), itchy skin is often caused by dry skin. It’s common in older adults, as skin tends to become drier with age.
Depending on the cause of your itchiness, your skin may appear normal, red, rough or bumpy. Repeated scratching can cause raised thick areas of skin that might bleed or become infected.
Itching can affect any area of the body. It can either be:
• generalised – where itching occurs over the whole body
• localised – where itching only occurs in a particular area
Sometimes, there may be a rash or spot where the itching occurs.
Mild, short-lived itching is common, but the problem can occasionally be severe and very frustrating to live with.
Symptoms of Itchy Skin
Itchy skin can affect small areas, such as the scalp, an arm or a leg, or the whole body. Itchy skin can occur without any other noticeable changes on the skin. Or it may be associated with:
• Scratch marks
• Bumps, spots or blisters
• Dry, cracked skin
• Leathery or scaly patches
Causes of Itchy Skin
• Skin conditions. Examples include dry skin (xerosis), eczema (dermatitis), psoriasis, scabies, parasites, burns, scars, insect bites and hives.
• Bugs: When you get bitten by a mosquito or spider, you know it. Bites from bedbugs and mites can be harder to diagnose because they look like rashes. Lice can cause a crawling sensation in your scalp or pubic hair, along with an intense itch. See a photo of what bedbug bites look like.
• Internal diseases. Itching on the whole body might be a symptom of an underlying illness, such as liver disease, kidney disease, anemia, diabetes, thyroid problems, multiple myeloma or lymphoma.
• Nerve disorders. Examples include multiple sclerosis, pinched nerves and shingles (herpes zoster).
• Psychiatric conditions. Examples include anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.
• Irritation and allergic reactions. Wool, chemicals, soaps and other substances can irritate the skin and cause rashes and itching. Sometimes the substance, such as poison ivy or cosmetics, causes an allergic reaction. Also, reactions to certain drugs, such as narcotic pain medications (opioids) can cause itchy skin.
• Blood test. A complete blood count can provide evidence of an internal condition causing your itch, such as anemia.
• Tests of thyroid, liver and kidney function. Liver or kidney disorders and thyroid abnormalities, such as hyperthyroidism, may cause itching.
• Chest X-rays. A chest X-ray can show if you have enlarged lymph nodes, which can go along with itchy skin.
• keep your nails clean, short and smooth
• try patting or tapping the itchy area, rather than scratching it
• wear cotton gloves at night to prevent damage from scratching in your sleep
• hold a cold compress, such as damp flannel, over the affected area to cool it down
• use cool or lukewarm water, rather than hot water
• keep baths to less than 20 minutes
• try to reduce how often you have a bath or shower if possible
• avoid using perfumed soap, shower gel or deodorants – unperfumed substitutes are often available from pharmacists
Some lotions, creams and medications available over the counter from pharmacies or on a prescription from your GP can help reduce itchiness.
Common treatments recommended include:
• an oily moisturiser or emollient if your skin is dry or flaky
• creams containing menthol to cool your skin or anti-itch ingredients such as crotamiton
• mild steroid cream (usually for only a few days) for small, inflamed areas – hydrocortisone cream is available from pharmacies over the counter, or your GP can prescribe a steroid cream for you.
• Moisturize daily. Apply hypoallergenic and fragrance-free moisturizer (Cetaphil, others) to affected skin at least once a day. For dry skin, thicker creams and ointments work better than lotions.
• Treat the scalp. For a dry, itchy scalp, try over-the-counter medicated shampoos containing zinc pyrithione (Head & Shoulders, others), ketoconazole (Nizoral, others), selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue, others) or coal tar (Neutrogena T/Gel, others). You might need to try several products before finding one that works for your hair and condition.
Itchy skin is a common issue that’s not usually a cause for concern. It often occurs along with a rash and has a clear cause, such as an insect bite or sting or a sunburn. This type of itchiness usually goes away on its own. However, sometimes skin may itch without a rash. In these cases, an underlying condition could be the cause. It could be something as simple as dry skin or as serious as cancer.