Itchy skin is an uncomfortable, irritating sensation that makes you want to scratch. Also known as pruritus (proo-RIE-tus), itchy skin is often caused by dry skin. It's common in older adults, as skin tends to become drier with age.
Depending on the cause of your itchiness, your skin may appear normal, red, rough or bumpy. 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 moisturizing daily, using gentle cleansers and bathing with lukewarm water. Long-term relief requires identifying and treating the cause of itchy skin. Common treatments are medicated creams, moist dressings and oral anti-itch medicines.
Itchy skin can affect small areas, such as the scalp, an arm or a leg, or the whole body. Itchy skin can occur without any other noticeable changes on the skin. Or it may be associated with:
- 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 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 weight loss, fever or night sweats
If the condition persists for three months despite treatment, see a dermatologist to be evaluated for skin disease. It may also be necessary to see a doctor who specializes in internal medicine (internist) to be evaluated for other diseases.
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, multiple myeloma or lymphoma.
- 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 substances can irritate the skin and cause rashes and itching. Sometimes the substance, such as poison ivy or cosmetics, causes an allergic reaction. Also, reactions to certain drugs, such as narcotic pain medications (opioids) can cause itchy skin.
Sometimes the cause of the itching can't be determined.
Itchy skin that is severe or lasts more than six weeks (chronic pruritus) can affect the quality of your life. It might interrupt 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.