Itchy skin is an irritating sensation that makes you want to scratch. It's also called pruritus (proo-RIE-tus). Itchy skin is often caused by dry skin and is common in older adults, as skin tends to become drier with age.
Depending on the cause of your itchiness, your skin may look no different than usual or it may be inflamed, rough or have bumps. Repeated scratching can cause raised thick areas of skin that might bleed or become infected.
Many people find relief with self-care measures such as moisturizers, gentle cleansers and lukewarm baths. Long-term relief requires identifying and treating the cause of itchy skin. Common treatments are medicated creams, moist dressings and anti-itch medicines taken by mouth.
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Itchy skin can affect small areas, such as the scalp, an arm or a leg. Or it can cover the whole body. Itchy skin can occur without any other noticeable changes on the skin. Or it may come with:
- Inflamed skin
- Scratch marks
- Bumps, spots or blisters
- Dry, cracked skin
- Leathery or scaly patches
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.
When to see a doctor
See your health care provider 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
- Comes with other symptoms, such as weight loss, fever or night sweats
If the condition persists for three months despite treatment, see a dermatologist to be evaluated for skin disease. You may also need to see a doctor who specializes in internal medicine (internist) to check for other diseases.
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Causes of itchy skin include:
- Skin conditions. Examples include dry skin (xerosis), eczema (dermatitis), psoriasis, scabies, parasites, burns, scars, insect bites and hives.
- Internal diseases. Itching on the whole body might be a symptom of an underlying illness, such as liver disease, kidney disease, anemia, diabetes, thyroid problems and certain cancers.
- Nerve disorders. Examples include multiple sclerosis, pinched nerves and shingles (herpes zoster).
- Psychiatric conditions. Examples include anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.
- Irritation and allergic reactions. Wool, chemicals, soaps and other things can irritate the skin and cause rashes and itching. Sometimes a substance, such as poison ivy or cosmetics, causes an allergic reaction. Also, reactions to certain medicines, such as narcotics to treat pain (opioids) can cause itchy skin.
Sometimes the cause of the itching can't be determined.
Anyone can develop itchy skin. But you may be more likely to develop it if you:
- Have a condition that can cause itching, such as dermatitis, kidney disease, anemia or thyroid disease.
- Are an older adult, as skin can become drier with age.
Itchy skin that is severe or lasts more than six weeks can affect the quality of your life. This type is called chronic pruritus. It might disturb your sleep or cause anxiety or depression. Prolonged itching and scratching can increase the intensity of the itch, possibly leading to skin injury, infection and scarring.
Jan. 17, 2024