What is itchy skin?
Itchy skin is an uncomfortable, irritating sensation that makes you want to scratch. Also known as pruritus, itchy skin is usually caused by dry skin. It’s common in older adults, as skin tends to become drier with age.
Depending on the cause of your itchy skin, it may appear normal. Or it may be red or rough or have bumps or blisters. Repeated scratching can cause raised, thickened areas of skin that may bleed or become infected.
How common is itchy skin?
Itchy skin is extremely common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of itchy skin?
You may have itchy skin over certain small areas, such as on an arm or leg, or over your whole body. Itchy skin can occur without any other noticeable changes on the skin. Or it may be associated with:
- Bumps, spots or blisters
- Dry, cracked skin
- Leathery or scaly texture to the skin
Sometimes itchiness lasts a long time and can be intense. As you rub or scratch the area, it gets itchier. And the more it itches, the more you scratch. Breaking this itch-scratch cycle can be difficult, but continued scratching can damage your skin or cause infection.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
See your doctor or a skin disease specialist (dermatologist) if the itching:
- Lasts more than two weeks and doesn’t improve with self-care measures
- Is severe and distracts you from your daily routines or prevents you from sleeping
- Comes on suddenly and can’t be easily explained
- Affects your whole body
- Is accompanied by other signs and symptoms, such as extreme tiredness, weight loss, changes in bowel habits or urinary frequency, fever, or redness of the skin
What causes itchy skin?
Possible causes of itchy skin include:
- Dry skin. If you don’t see a crop of bright, red bumps or some other dramatic change in the itchy area, dry skin (xerosis) is a likely cause. Dry skin usually results from older age or environmental factors such as long-term use of air conditioning or central heating, and washing or bathing too much.
- Skin conditions and rashes. Many skin conditions itch, including eczema (dermatitis), psoriasis, scabies, lice, chickenpox and hives. The itching usually affects specific areas and is accompanied by other signs, such as red, irritated skin or bumps and blisters.
- Internal diseases. Itchy skin can be a symptom of an underlying illness. These include liver disease, kidney failure, iron deficiency anemia, thyroid problems and cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma. The itching usually affects the whole body. The skin may look otherwise normal except for the repeatedly scratched areas.
- Nerve disorders. Conditions that affect the nervous system — such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes mellitus, pinched nerves and shingles (herpes zoster) — can cause itching.
- Irritation and allergic reactions. Wool, chemicals, soaps and other substances can irritate the skin and cause itching. Sometimes the substance, such as poison ivy or cosmetics, causes an allergic reaction. Food allergies also may cause skin to itch.
- Reactions to drugs, such as antibiotics, antifungal drugs or narcotic pain medications, can cause widespread rashes and itching.
- During pregnancy, some women experience itchy skin, especially on the abdomen and thighs. Also, itchy skin conditions, such as dermatitis, can worsen during pregnancy.
What increases my risk for itchy skin?
Anyone can get pruritus but certain groups of people are more susceptible to the condition, including:
- People with seasonal allergies, hay fever, asthma, and eczema
- People with diabetes
- People with HIV/AIDS and various types of cancer
- Pregnant women
- The elderly
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is itchy skin diagnosed?
Tracking down the cause of your itch can take time and involve a physical exam and a careful history. If your doctor suspects your itchy skin is the result of an underlying medical condition, he or she may perform tests, including:
- Blood test. A complete blood count can provide evidence of an internal condition causing your itch, such as iron deficiency.
- Tests of thyroid, liver and kidney function. Liver or kidney disorders and thyroid abnormalities, such as hyperthyroidism, may cause itching.
- Chest X-rays. Signs of underlying disease that are associated with itchy skin, such as enlarged lymph nodes, can be seen by using X-rays.
How is itchy skin treated?
Once a cause is identified, treatments for itchy skin may include:
- Corticosteroid creams. If your skin is itchy and red, your doctor may suggest applying a medicated cream to the affected areas. He or she may also suggest that you cover these areas with damp cotton material that has been soaked in water or other solutions. The moisture in the wet dressings helps the skin absorb the cream and also has a cooling effect on the skin, reducing itch.
- Calcineurin inhibitors. Certain drugs, such as tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel), can be used instead of corticosteroid creams in some cases, especially if the itchy area isn’t large.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), may help reduce various types of skin itching.
Treating the underlying disease
If an internal disease is found — whether it’s kidney disease, iron deficiency or a thyroid problem — treating that disease often relieves the itch. Other itch-relief methods also may be recommended.
Light therapy (phototherapy)
Phototherapy involves exposing your skin to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light. Multiple sessions are usually scheduled until the itching is under control.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage itchy skin?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you avoid itchy skin:
- Use skin creams and lotions that moisturize your skin and prevent dryness.
- Use sunscreens regularly to prevent sunburns and skin damage.
- Use mild bath soap that won’t irritate your skin.
- Take a bath or shower in warm — not hot — water.
- Avoid certain fabrics, such as wool and synthetics, that can make skin itch. Switch to cotton clothing and bed sheets.
- Since warm, dry air can make skin dry, keep the thermostat in your house down and use a humidifier.
- To relieve itching, place a cool washcloth or some ice over the area that itches, rather than scratching.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
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