Itchy skin, which doctors call pruritus, is a common symptom that can affect any part of the body. When it affects the chest, this can indicate a range of causes, including allergic reactions, psoriasis, and kidney or liver problems.
Depending on the cause, the itchiness may either remain confined to the chest or affect the whole body. Sometimes, a person may have the sensation that the inside of their chest feels itchy. Pruritus can occur with or without a rash.
In this article, we explain the various causes of an itchy chest and discuss treatments and home remedies.
In addition to pruritis, the symptoms of contact dermatitis include a rash, a burning or stinging sensation, redness, and swelling.
Triggers for contact dermatitis on the chest vary among individuals but often include:
- chemicals or dyes in clothing
- laundry detergent
- dryer sheets
- jewelry, especially nickel
- cosmetic skin products
People can try to prevent contact dermatitis by identifying and avoiding their triggers. Topical steroids and antihistamines can help relieve symptoms.
Excessively dry skin anywhere on the body can result in uncomfortable itching sensations. Dry skin can arise due to very cold or hot weather with low humidity. Washing the skin too much or with harsh chemicals can also cause it to become dry.
Symptoms of dry skin include:
- scaly or flaking skin
- cracks in the skin
- gray skin, which may appear ashy in people with darker skin
People with itchy dry skin should avoid scratching it as this can cause breaks in the skin, leading to bleeding and an increased risk of skin infections. Topical moisturizers can usually relieve dry skin.
Insect bites are a very common cause of itchy skin. People may not always realize that a bug has bitten them.
Bites from bedbugs, mosquitos, and other biting insects can cause a very itchy, raised, swollen rash around the bite. This rash is called hives or urticaria.
If a person does not cover their chest when sleeping, recurrent itching on this part of the body could indicate bedbugs.
The first sign of shingles is often a burning or tingling pain, which sometimes occurs alongside numbness or itching. These symptoms tend to appear on only one side of the body, and they typically affect the sides, back, chest, and head.
After 1–5 days, the person will develop a red rash in the affected areas. After a few more days, this will turn into blisters. Once the rash has gone away, people may experience lasting pain called postherpetic neuralgia in the same areas of the body.
People who suspect that they have shingles should see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Itching can be a side effect of taking a medication. In these cases, it is usually a mild side effect and does not necessarily mean that a person should stop taking the medication.
Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin condition that causes areas of scaly skin. It can sometimes be itchy.
A form of psoriasis called inverse psoriasis occurs in areas where the skin folds, such as under the arms, below the breasts, and around the genitals.
Treatments for psoriasis include steroid creams and anti-inflammatory drugs.
End stage kidney disease can cause a type of skin itching called uraemic pruritus, or chronic kidney disease-associated pruritus (CKD-associated pruritus).
In people with this condition, the itching usually affects the back, head, abdomen, and arms, but it can involve the chest too.
If a person extends the time between their dialysis treatments, they may notice that the skin itching becomes more pronounced.
Thyroid disorders often affect the skin, hair, and nails. Depending on the type of disorder, other symptoms may include sensitivity to cold or hot temperatures, fatigue, dry skin, and coarse, dry hair.
Doctors can treat thyroid disorders using medications that rebalance hormone levels.
In very rare instances, an itchy chest can be a symptom of a more serious condition. An example is breast cancer.
In rare instances, inflammatory breast cancer — a form of breast cancer that grows rapidly — can cause skin redness, inflammation, and itching skin. It can also make the skin appear and feel like an orange peel. If a person is concerned about the appearance of their skin, they should talk to their doctor.
According to the British Association of Dermatologists, there are some cases in which skin itchiness has no known cause. This situation is more common among adults over the age of 65 years.
The treatment options for an itchy chest depend on the condition's underlying cause.
If a person suspects an allergic reaction to a substance contacting their skin, they could try taking an antihistamine, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine), and ask their doctor about taking topical steroids. Benadryl causes drowsiness, so a person should only take it at night.
If the itching is due to hives, a nondrowsy antihistamine, such as Zyrtec (cetirizine), may be more useful. However, some people can still become drowsy after taking Zyrtec, so it is important to take care when using it.
If the cause of an itchy chest is likely to be a medication that the person is taking, they should talk to a doctor. The doctor can offer advice on whether they should stop taking the medicine altogether or explore an alternative medication option.
Doctors can prescribe ointments for skin itching conditions, such as psoriasis, and drugs to help manage other medical conditions.
People with itchy skin may find relief from their symptoms by adopting the following practices:
- limiting bathing to 5-10 minutes and using warm rather than hot water
- using fragrance free detergents
- using a body wash that is good for sensitive skin
- applying a cream (such as CeraVe or Vanicream) or an ointment (such as Vaseline) within a few minutes of bathing
- avoiding using lotions, which tend to be drying
- avoiding using irritating products on the skin
- refraining from scratching the skin
If a person experiences a persistent rash or itching that does not respond to home remedies, they should see a doctor.
People who have a chronic illness, such as kidney or liver disease, and experience intense skin itching should see a doctor. This symptom could indicate that their condition is not well controlled.
A person with an itchy chest should also see a doctor if they have the following signs and symptoms:
- an orange peel-like appearance to the chest skin or other breast changes, including new lumps and nipple discharge
- severe peeling of the skin
- sudden redness or inflammation on the skin
- unplanned weight loss or gain
- night sweats, fever, and chills
If a person's symptoms do not improve with at-home treatments, they should talk to their doctor about potential underlying causes.
In most instances, chest skin itching is not a cause for concern. Discontinuing the use of potentially irritating fragrances, lotions, or detergents may help.
If the symptoms continue or worsen despite at-home treatments, a person should talk to a doctor. The doctor may be able to recommend alternative treatments or medications to treat skin itching.