Why Do We Itch and How to Treat It 

An itch is an uncomfortable or irritation sensation that makes you want to scratch the skin. Itches can have any number of causes. Itchy skin or pruritus is typically caused by some other conditions that are affecting the skin. In most cases the skin will appear normal when you itch, but sometimes the skin will appear rough, dry, cracked or red. The skin may be leathery or scaly in texture. Bumps and blisters can also appear on itchy skin. In some cases itchiness can last for a long time or be very intense, making it irresistible to rub or scratch the affected area. However, scratching the affected skin may only make your itch worse.

Itches can be localized to one specific area of the body or generalized, affecting several different areas or the body as a whole. Generalized itching can be more difficult to treat than a localized itch, particularly if the itch is not accompanied by any noticeable skin abnormality.

In most cases itchy skin can simply be treated with home remedies. If you have been experiencing itchiness or irritated skin for a long period of time, you will need to identify what is causing your discomfort. Otherwise, you will not be able to narrow down the proper treatment to relieve your distress.

Why Do We Itch?

  • Dry skin- If the skin does not look different than normal when it is itchy then you are likely experiencing these symptoms because your skin is dry. Dry skin or xerosis is usually caused by environmental factors like low humidity, very hot or cold weather or an excessive use of temperature control devices like a heater or air conditioning. Bathing too frequently can also dry out the skin causing you to become itchy.
  • Skin conditions- There are several skin conditions that are known for causing itching. These include chickenpox, eczema, lice, psoriasis, scabies, dermatographism or hives. Look for any blisters, bumps, redness or skin irritation that can help you narrow down which of these conditions may be contributing to your discomfort.
  • Potential diseases- Diseases like anemia, lymphoma, leukemia, kidney failure, celiac disease or liver disease can make your skin itchy. In this case the skin will typically look normal, but you will experience a generalized itch all over the body.
  • Nerve disorders- If you have a condition that caused the nervous system to function strangely such as diabetes mellitus, pinched nerves, multiple sclerosis, or shingles you may experience itching on the skin.
  • Allergies and irritation- If the skin has been exposed to a substance that causes an allergic reaction like certain foods, cosmetics, soaps, chemicals, wool or poison ivy you can begin to itch in the affected area.
  • Medications- Some medications including narcotics, antifungal or antibiotic medications cite itching as a potential side effect.
  • Pregnancy- Conditions such as dermatitis can become more severe during pregnancy. Other pregnant women frequently report increased itching on the breasts, arms, thighs or abdomen.

How to Treat an Itch

1. Medical Treatments

  • Medications- Topical corticosteroid creams can be applied to the itchy areas of the skin with a cotton ball to relieve itching. Apply the medication, and then cover the area with a damp cotton dressing to help the skin absorb the cream. Those suffering from hives or allergies can take oral antihistamines to calm their reaction.
  • Light therapy- Exposing the skin to controlled wavelengths of ultraviolet light can help relieve itching. It may take several sessions before this treatment will take effect.
  • Treating potential diseases- Your doctor can perform an examination to determine if a more severe condition like iron deficiency or thyroid issues may be causing your itchiness. If this is the case, you can work together to find proper medical treatments to deal with these issues.
  • Temporary relief- Ointments and lotions like camphor, menthol or calamine are available to temporarily stop itching. You can also apply topical anesthetics like benzocaine or lidocaine to help stop the itch.

2. Home Remedies

  • Moisturizers- Using a high quality moisturizer on the skin twice a day can help relieve your discomfort. Cetaphil, vanicream, CeraVe and others are known to be helpful. Make a point of focusing your efforts on areas that have the most itchiness to get the best results.
  • Anti-itch creams and lotions- Lower strength hydrocortisone creams are available over the counter, as are oral antihistamines. These can be taken or applied according to the directions to help relieve itchiness.
  • No scratching- While it may be tempting you should try to avoid scratching itchy skin. Trim the nails, wear gloves at night and cover the area to relieve temptation. Scratching can further irritate or damage the skin, making your problem worse.
  • Cool compress- Covering an itchy patch of skin with cool, wet dressings can help soothe and protect the skin.
  • Cool bath- Soaking the skin in cool water can help relieve itchiness. Adding oatmeal, baking soda or colloidal oatmeal to the bath can increase your relief.
  • Proper clothing- Wear clothing with smooth textures to avoid irritating the skin.
  • Mild soaps and laundry detergent- Seek out detergents that are mild and unscented to avoid a potential allergic reaction. To further reduce this risk, use an extra-rinse cycle when washing your laundry.
  • Non-irritating substances- Note products like perfume, jewelry, cleaning products, nickel or cosmetics that irritate the skin so you can avoid them and the itchiness they cause.