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Itching

Everything You Need to Know About Itching

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Updated December 15, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Itching refers to an unpleasant sensation that causes the need to scratch –- the medical term for itching is pruritus. Itching may be confined to a certain area of the body (localized), or can be all over the body (generalized). Itching may be associated with a rash, which may either be the cause of the itch or the result of the scratching. For some people, there may be no visible rash associated with their itching. Regardless of the presence or absence of a rash, itching can be debilitating, especially at night when a person is trying to sleep.

Why Does Itching Occur?

Itching and pain are closely-related sensations, since the same nerves transmit both signals to the brain. When the area of skin is scratched, that same area may become even itchier, leading to more scratching. This is called the itch-scratch cycle. In general, itching can be related to a problem with the skin or another underlying disease of the body (systemic disease). When itching is localized to a particular area of skin, a systemic disease usually does not cause it.

What Causes Itching?

The causes of itching can be divided into localized and generalized. Areas of itching that are localized on one part of the body are more likely caused by a problem of the skin. The area of the body that itches may give a clue as to the cause of the itch. For example, itching of the scalp is most likely due to seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff), atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, psoriasis, or head lice.

Generalized itching may be due to various skin diseases, as well as systemic disease. Skin diseases that cause itching all over the body include hives, atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis. Itching may also be caused by medications (such as narcotics and other pain medications), infections (such as parasitic infections of the intestines), iron deficiency, liver disease, kidney disease, high or low thyroid function, as well as certain cancers.

What Common Skin Allergies Cause Itching?

There are three common allergic skin diseases that cause itching. These include atopic dermatitis (eczema), hives (urticaria), and contact dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis usually affects children and young adults, and causes itching of the skin, especially in the flexural areas of the elbow folds and behind the knees. Scratching the skin results in a dry, flaky rash that may be associated with blisters and oozing.

Hives is an itchy rash that can occur at any age, but commonly affects children. This rash appears as raised red bumps of various shapes and sizes that typically last for only a few minutes to a few hours. In about 50% of people with hives, swelling of the skin around the eyes, mouth, tongue or hands/feet may occur, which is called angioedema.

Contact dermatitis is caused from skin contact with a chemical that results in a rash that looks like poison oak or poison ivy. Plants of the Toxicodendron family are a common cause of plant-induced contact dermatitis, resulting in an extremely itchy rash that has blisters that ooze and crust after contact with the skin. People can also react to a variety of other chemicals, including cosmetics/make-up, sunblock, hair dye, metals, topical medications and dental materials.

Check out some pictures of common itchy skin rashes.

What is the Treatment For Itching?

If the cause of the itching can be identified and avoided or corrected, then the itching can be cured. However, this is not always possible. Treatment of the itching certainly depends on the cause, although some general measures would apply to most cases of itching.

Treatment of dry skin as the cause of itching: Many people with dry skin have a difficult time finding relief. Various skin treatments, including over-the-counter moisturizers and prescription steroid creams, may not be effective alone. A technique called "soak and slather" has long been used successfully to treat dry skin. This technique involves nightly soaking in a warm, plain water bath followed immediately by the application of a topical corticosteroid ointment to moist skin for a 2-week period of time. Skin care is then maintained with the use of a daily moisturizer after bathing.

Creams for the treatment of itching: Topical steroids are anti-inflammatory medications used to treat various skin conditions. These medications can reduce inflammation, itching, flaking and oozing when applied to the skin one or more times a day. There are a number of types of topical steroids available by prescription, as well as hydrocortisone 1% cream, which is available over the counter without a prescription.

Certain creams should not be used for itching. These include topical anesthetics and topical antihistamines, which can cause itchy rashes themselves, and therefore are not recommended for the treatment of itching.

Facial creams for itching: Only certain types of anti-itch creams can be used on the face. The skin on the face is particularly susceptible to the side effects of topical steroids, and getting these medications into the eyes can result in glaucoma or cataract formation. Therefore, only the lowest-potency topical steroids should be used on the face and only for the shortest amount of time possible.

Antihistamines for the treatment of itching: Certain forms of itching, particularly hives, may respond to treatment with oral antihistamines. Other causes of itching, such as eczema and contact dermatitis, may not get better with antihistamines. There are many choices of antihistamines, including prescription-only forms and over-the-counter types. Some antihistamines will benefit itching only through their sedation side effects, which can be useful at night.

What Have Other People Found to Help Their Itching?

Skin itching can make you miserable. Many people have found relief by identifying and fixing the cause. Even when a cause isn't found, some people have found unique ways to soothe their itch. Read what other people have found to solve their itching. Or, if you’ve found a great way to solve the problem of itchy skin, share your experience with others.
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