Itchy skin, or pruritus, can have many causes, and most are harmless. However, itchy skin can also be a symptom of certain types of cancer or a side effect of some cancer treatments.

The sensation of itchy skin can be irritating and uncomfortable. Also, repeated scratching can lead to complications, such as open sores and wounds that are painful and increase the risk of infection.

People who experience persistent itching should contact a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

In this article, we list types of cancer that may cause itchy skin, and provide tips on managing this skin condition. We also outline some other causes of itchy skin and offer advice on when to consult a healthcare professional.

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A 2018 study involving 16,925 people found that the participants with generalized skin itching, or pruritus, were more likely to also have cancer than those who did not have pruritus.

The researchers note that pruritus is most strongly associated with the following types of cancer:

The researchers also note that Black people with pruritus are more likely than white people to have skin, soft tissue, and blood cancers. By contrast, white people are at greater risk of developing liver, respiratory, gastrointestinal (GI), and gynecologic cancers.

Below, we discuss in more detail the types of cancer that may cause pruritus.

Skin cancer

Health experts associate skin cancer more commonly with skin changes than with itchiness.

However, cancer can stimulate nerve endings in the skin, causing itching.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which is a network of organs, glands, and vessels that plays an important role in immunity. Specifically, lymphoma affects white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Itching is a common symptom of a group of lymphomas called cutaneous T-cell lymphomas. Itching may be due to nerve endings reacting to chemicals that the immune system releases in response to the lymphoma.

Polycythemia vera

Polycythemia vera (PV) is a type of blood condition that causes the body to produce too many red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. Experts do not know the exact cause of PV, although most agree that it stems from a genetic mutation.

Itchy skin is one of the symptoms of PV and typically occurs when the skin comes into contact with water.

This type of pruritus likely occurs because of an overproduction of immune cells that trigger the release of chemicals called histamines. The histamines then cause allergic symptoms, such as itchy skin.

GI cancers

Some cancers of the digestive system, such as GI stromal tumors, may cause pruritus. However, if there are no other accompanying symptoms, an alternative diagnosis is more likely.

With GI cancers, pruritus occurs due to blockage of the bile ducts connecting the liver and the small intestine. This blockage prevents the normal drainage of fluid from the blood into the intestines. These chemicals can then enter the skin, where they may trigger itching.

While certain cancer types can lead to itchy skin, cancer is not the most common cause of this symptom. However, if cancer is the underlying cause, a person will most likely experience additional symptoms.

Numerous skin conditions can result in itchy skin, such as:

Other possible causes of itchy skin include:

People may be able to manage itchy skin using home remedies, medical treatments, or a combination of the two.

Home remedies

Some tips for managing itchy skin at home include:

  • avoiding scratching the skin, as this can cause wounds that may become infected
  • bathing in warm, not hot, water
  • adding baking soda, oatmeal, or bath oil to bathwater
  • applying an alcohol- and fragrance-free skin cream on damp skin 2–3 times per day
  • patting the skin dry, as opposed to rubbing
  • keeping the indoor environment cool to prevent sweating
  • wearing breathable, loose-fitting clothes
  • staying hydrated

Medical treatment

A person who experiences severe or persistent skin itching should contact a doctor.

Depending on the person’s symptoms, the doctor may order tests such as:

The type of treatment a doctor recommends for skin itching will depend on the underlying cause. Possible treatment options include:

  • medicated creams, lotions, or ointments
  • oral or topical steroids
  • antihistamines

Itchy skin can occur as a side effect of certain cancer treatments, including:

A person may also develop skin itching as a side effect of medications they take alongside primary cancer treatments. These medications may include:

A person should seek guidance from a healthcare professional if they experience itching that lasts for more than 2 weeks, particularly if the itching occurs across the entire body and does not have an identifiable cause.

People should also contact a doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms in addition to itchy skin:

Itchy skin, or pruritus, can have many causes, and most cases are relatively benign or transient. However, itchy skin can also occur as a symptom of certain types of cancer or as a side effect of certain cancer treatments.

Treatment for itchy skin may include medicated creams or lotions, oral or topical steroids, or antihistamines. The type of medication a doctor prescribes will depend largely on the cause of the itching.

Anyone who experiences itching lasting more than 2 weeks should contact a doctor. This is especially important if other symptoms are present, such as skin rashes, skin sores, or jaundice.

A doctor will work to diagnose the cause of the symptoms and determine appropriate treatments.