For some people, itchy skin is a constant battle. It can be difficult to understand exactly what is causing the skin to itch.
Itchy skin can be the result of a rash or another skin condition. It can also be a symptom of a more serious condition such as liver disease or kidney failure. To get relief, it is important to identify the problem and treat the underlying cause.
Contents of this article:
Skin, rashes, and itches
Skin serves a vital purpose as a barrier, protecting the inside of the body.
Itching is one of the most common symptoms of all skin problems.
The skin is filled with special cells of the immune system which provide the body with protection. They help to protect the skin and body against viruses, bacteria, and other hidden threats.
Once the skin cells detect any type of suspicious substance, they trigger a reaction that causes the area to become inflamed. This inflammation is referred to as a rash or dermatitis.
There are different types of dermatitis. The skin's immune cells can have a reaction to something that touches the skin, a whole-body infection, or an illness. Some rashes are red, painful, and irritated while others can lead to blisters or patches of raw skin.
One of the most common symptoms of all skin problems is itching. People may suffer from itchy skin all over their body or only specific areas. People may also have problems with dry, cracked skin, or a leathery or scaly skin texture.
Dry skin is one of the most common causes of itchy skin. If people do not see any bright red bumps or notice a sudden change to their skin, dry skin is a likely cause.
Environmental factors that can lead to dry skin include excessively hot or cold weather with low humidity, as well as washing too much. Dry skin can affect any age group, but as people age their skin becomes thinner and drier.
A good moisturizer can usually help to repair dry skin. Extremely dry skin can be a warning sign of dermatitis. People may need to see a dermatologist to help get relief and to keep their condition from getting worse.
Common signs and symptoms of dry skin include:
- Rough, scaly, or flaking skin throughout the body
- Excessive itching
- Gray, or ashy-looking skin in people with darker skin
- Cracks in the skin that are prone to bleeding
- Chapped or cracked lips
It is important for people to seek help to treat dry skin because cracks in the skin can allow germs to enter. Once inside the skin, these germs can cause an infection. Red, sore spots on the skin are often an early sign of a potential infection.
A skin specialist may prescribe a special moisturizer to apply throughout the day or a topical medicine to apply directly to the skin.
Common causes for skin itching
The following conditions are other common causes of itchy skin.
Eczema affects 1 in 5 infants but often improves over time.
The cause has been linked to leakiness of the skin barrier. This causes the area to dry out, making it at risk of irritation and inflammation. It is important to keep the skin moisturized.
The good news is that eczema often improves over time. People with eczema have to be careful, however, as they are more vulnerable to skin infections.
Irritation and allergic reactions can also cause itchy skin. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the skin comes into direct contact with an allergen.
The result of the skin allergy is a red, itchy rash that can include small blisters or bumps. The rash arises whenever the skin comes in contact with the allergen, a substance that the immune system attacks. Often, there is a time delay between exposure to the allergen and when the rash occurs.
Allergic reactions can be triggered by touching clothing, pets, chemicals, soaps, and substances such as poison ivy or cosmetics. Food allergies can also cause the skin to itch.
Nickel allergies are quite common. When individuals come into contact with jewelry that contains even a small amount of nickel, they can develop red, bumpy, itchy, and swollen skin at the point of contact.
If people have an allergic reaction to a particular substance, one of the easiest things to do is to avoid that product or substance. Over-the-counter creams or medicated creams can help to clear up a rash.
Hives are a skin inflammation caused by the release of a chemical in the body called histamine. This release causes small blood vessels to leak which causes the skin to swell.
There are two kinds of hives. Acute hives most commonly occur after coming into contact with an allergic trigger, such as a particular food or medication. Non-allergic causes such as excessively hot or cold weather, sun exposure, or exercise also can serve as a trigger.
Chronic hives are not caused by specific triggers, which usually makes allergy tests unhelpful. They can last for months and even years. Hives can cause uncomfortable itching and be painful, but they are not contagious.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology state that hives affect about 20 percent of people at some time in their life.
Itching can also be related to parasites such as threadworms, insects such as bedbugs, mosquitoes, or lice. Fungal infections such as athlete's foot can also cause itching between and around the toes.
Uremic pruritus or renal itch is also called chronic kidney disease associated pruritus (CKD-associated pruritus). Uremia refers to a broad syndrome that occurs when the kidneys are severely damaged and cannot filter toxins from the body.
One of the many symptoms of uremia is itching that is typically worse at night. This itching most commonly affects the back, arms, and abdomen.
Treatments for itchy skin
The treatment plan has a lot to do with the cause of itching. For people who are suffering from dry skin, a good moisturizer may be just the trick.
Scratching an itch can damage the skin and make the itch worse.
People who have eczema, dermatitis, hives, or another skin condition may be recommended corticosteroid creams by a skin specialist. These can be applied directly to the skin to help with itching. Topical calcineurin inhibitors and oral antihistamines can also help to relieve the itch.
Oral antihistamines are common anti-allergy medications. They can be prescribed or purchased over the counter. Examples include Zyrtec, Claritin, and Benadryl.
People who have psoriasis or kidney failure may be recommended alternative treatments if there are reasons to avoid medication therapy. Light therapy or phototherapy is one such treatment method. The treatment involves exposing the skin to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light to help get the itching under control.
- Using a high-quality moisturizing cream on the skin and applying it at least once or twice per day
- Applying an anti-itch cream such as nonprescription hydrocortisone cream to the area to help relieve the itching
- Applying a cool, wet compress to the affected area
- Taking a lukewarm bath
- Choosing mild soaps without dyes or perfumes and using mild or unscented laundry detergent when washing
- Avoiding substances that irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction such as nickel, jewelry, and wool
Perhaps the most important self-care measure is to avoid scratching. Scratching can ultimately lead to further inflammation and damage to the skin, and can worsen the itching.
If over-the-counter creams do not work, if a rash spreads, or if someone experiences additional symptoms beyond itching, they should see a physician or skin specialist to identify the cause and treat the particular problem.