Itching is often a symptom of diabetic polyneuropathy, which is a condition that develops when diabetes leads to nerve damage. Certain skin conditions that develop as a result of diabetes may also cause itchy skin.
A person with diabetes should not ignore itchy skin. Dry, irritated, or itchy skin is more likely to become infected, and people with diabetes may not be able to fight off infections as successfully as those who do not have the condition.
In this article, we look at the reasons a person with diabetes might experience itching and offer tips on providing relief.
Causes of diabetic itching
Diabetes can lead to areas of itching.
Diabetes can cause areas of localized itching.
There are several reasons why a person with diabetes might experience more frequent itching than others.
Sometimes, itching can result from damaged nerve fibers in the outer layers of skin.
Often, the cause of diabetes-related itching is diabetic polyneuropathy or peripheral neuropathy. These are complications of diabetes that develop when high blood glucose levels cause damage to nerve fibers, particularly those in the feet and hands.
Before nerve damage starts to occur for people with diabetes, high levels of cytokines circulate the body. These are inflammatory substances that can lead to itching.
Recent research suggests that the increase in cytokines might eventually have a relationship with diabetic nerve damage.
Sometimes, persistent itchiness might indicate that a person with diabetes is at risk of nerve damage due to increase cytokine levels. Many people also experience itching as a symptom after neuropathy develops.
Seek medical attention if itching becomes persistent.
People with diabetes can also experience complications, including kidney or liver failure, which may also cause itching.
Some people with diabetes may develop itchy skin as an adverse side effect of a new medication or have an allergic reaction to it.
However, a person should not stop taking their medication until confirming with their doctor that they have experienced an allergic reaction. The doctor may need to prescribe a replacement medication.
People can also experience itching as a result of poor circulation. In these instances, itching is more likely to occur lower down in the legs.
Skin products that contain perfumes, dyes, and strong soaps can dry out the skin, leading to itchiness.
The skin can also dry or become sensitive in the winter.
Diabetic skin conditions
Sometimes an underlying skin condition can cause itching. People with diabetes can get certain skin conditions and infections more easily than people who do not have diabetes.
Examples of these include:
- Fungal infection: Fungal infections, such as athlete's foot and jock itch, can lead to itching. Skin can also be red, hot, or swollen. Sometimes, small blisters develop and produce a liquid discharge. The yeast-like fungus Candida albicans is often responsible for these infections.
- Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD): This is a rare skin condition that typically develops on the lower legs, although it can also affect other parts of the body. NLD starts as a dull, red spot with a raised surface that develops into a scar-like lesion with a dark border. It can cause pain and itching.
- Eruptive xanthomatosis: More common in people with type 1 diabetes, this condition forms yellow lesions on the skin that are about the size of a peanut. High cholesterol and fat levels increase the risk of eruptive xanthomatosis. The spots often occur on the legs, feet, hands, arms, and buttocks. Every bump will have a red ring around it and might itch.
The symptoms of itching vary and depend on the cause.
For example, if a person has peripheral neuropathy, they are more likely to experience itching on the lower parts of the legs.
They may also experience a loss of sensation, usually in the feet or hands. A tingling sensation might accompany these symptoms.
People with specific skin conditions or infections will itch at the site of the spot or lesion.
Itching can make a person feel uncomfortable in their clothes, wake them up in the night, and make them feel as if they always need to scratch.
Avoid taking baths that are too hot.
A person with diabetes can take several steps to maintain healthy skin and find relief from itching, including:
- Managing diabetes carefully and preventing blood sugar levels from becoming too high.
- Avoiding taking very hot baths. Hot water can remove moisture from the skin.
- Applying skin lotion while the skin is still damp after a bath or shower. However, a person with diabetes should not apply lotion between the toes, as this can work with moisture to attract harmful fungi.
- Avoiding moisturizers that contain harsh perfumes or dyes. Look for a product whose label that states that the lotion is "gentle" or "hypoallergenic." Some manufacturers create lotions specifically for people with diabetes.
There is a range of diabetes-specific lotions available for purchase online.
Making lifestyle changes may also help reduce skin symptoms. These include eating a healthful diet.
When to see a doctor
Anyone with diabetes who tries home remedies to treat itchiness but sees no improvement after about 2 weeks should talk to their doctor about other options.
While everyone has itchy skin from time to time, for people with diabetes, itchy skin can signal poor diabetes control and potential nerve damage.
A doctor can evaluate areas of dry or patchy skin to determine if diabetes or an underlying skin condition is the cause.
They may prescribe treatments or recommend changes to a person's diabetes management routine.