Itchy skin is an uncomfortable, irritating sensation that makes you want to scratch. Also known as pruritus (proo-RIE-tus), 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.
Self-care measures such as moisturizing, using anti-itch products and taking cool baths can help relieve itchy skin. Long-term relief requires identifying and treating the cause of itchy skin. Itchy skin treatments include medications, wet dressings and light therapy.
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.
When to see a 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
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.
- Drugs. Reactions to drugs, such as antibiotics, antifungal drugs or narcotic pain medications, can cause widespread rashes and itching.
- Pregnancy. During pregnancy, some women experience itchy skin, especially on the abdomen and thighs. Also, itchy skin conditions, such as dermatitis, can worsen during pregnancy.
Itching skin can affect the quality of your life. Prolonged itching and scratching may increase the intensity of the itch, possibly leading to:
- Skin injury
Aug. 11, 2017
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- Fazio SB, et al. Pruritis: Etiology and patient evaluation. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Cunningham FG, et al. Dermatological disorders. In: Williams Obstetrics. 24th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2014. http://www.accessmedicine.com. Accessed Aug. 25, 2016.