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Itching Content Supplied by NHS Choices
Introduction

Itching is an unpleasant sensation that compels a person to scratch the affected area. The medical name for itching is pruritus.

Itching can affect any area of the body. It can either be:

  • generalised - where itching occurs over the whole body
  • localised - where itching only occurs in a particular area

Sometimes, there may be a rash or spot where the itching occurs.

Mild, short-lived itching is common, but the problem can occasionally be severe and very frustrating to live with.

Common causes of itching

Itching can be caused by a number of different conditions, including:

Read more about the possible causes of itching.

Things you can do

If you experience troublesome itching, there are some things you can do that may help relieve it and prevent damage caused by scratching, including:

  • patting or tapping the itchy area, rather than scratching it
  • holding a cold compress, such as damp flannel, over the affected area to cool it down
  • bathing or showering in cool or lukewarm water
  • using unperfumed personal hygiene products
  • avoiding clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool or man-made fabrics
  • using a moisturiser or emollient if your skin is dry or flaky

There are also medicines, such as antihistamines and steroid creams, that are available over the counter from pharmacies that may help relieve itching caused by certain skin conditions.

Read more about treatments to relieve itching.

When to see your GP

Many cases of itching will get better over a short period of time. However, you should visit your GP if your itch is:

  • severe
  • lasts for a long time
  • keeps coming back
  • associated with other symptoms - such as redness and swelling or jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)

You should also visit your GP if your entire body itches and there is no obvious cause. It could be a symptom of a more serious condition.

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms - for example, if you have noticed whether anything makes your itch worse, or if your itch comes and goes. They will also examine your skin to look for any visible symptoms.

In some cases, they may take a skin scraping or a swab so it can be tested to help identify the cause of your itching. A blood test may also be carried out to look for underlying problems, such as thyroid or kidney disease.

Depending on what is found to be causing your itch, you may be referred to a hospital specialist for a further assessment and specific treatment.


Causes of itching

An itch is often caused by a condition affecting the skin, but it can be a sign of a more serious underlying problem.

In some cases, it may not be possible to identify a specific cause.

Skin conditions

Skin conditions that can cause itching include:

  • dry skin
  • eczema - where the skin is dry, red, flaky and itchy
  • contact dermatitis - inflammation of the skin that occurs when you come into contact with an irritant or allergen (see below)
  • urticaria - also known as hives, welts or nettle rash; urticaria is triggered by an allergen and causes a raised, red itchy rash to develop
  • lichen planus - an itchy rash of unknown cause
  • psoriasis - a skin condition that causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin covered with silvery scales
  • dandruff - a common skin condition that causes dry white or grey flakes of dead skin to appear in the scalp or hair
  • folliculitis - a skin condition caused by inflamed hair follicles
  • prurigo - small blisters (fluid-filled swellings) that are very itchy

Allergies and skin reactions

Itching is sometimes caused by an allergen, irritant or other environmental factor, including:

  • cosmetic ingredients, such as preservatives, fragrances, hair dye and nail varnish hardeners
  • certain metals, such as nickel or cobalt in jewellery
  • rubber - including latex
  • textiles - particularly the dyes and resins that are contained in them
  • some plants - such as chrysanthemums, sunflowers, daffodils, tulips and primula
  • an allergy to certain foods or types of medication (for example, aspirin and a group of medicines called opioids)
  • prickly heat - an itchy rash that appears in hot, humid weather conditions
  • sunburn - skin damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays

Parasites and insects

Itching can be caused by the following pests:

Infections

Itching may be a symptom of an infection, such as:

  • chickenpox or another viral infection
  • athlete's foot - a fungal infection that causes itching in between the toes
  • ringworm - a fungal infection that causes a ring-like red rash to develop on the skin and can cause an itchy scalp
  • vaginal thrush or thrush in men - yeast infections that can cause itching in and around the genitals

Other conditions

Itching can be a sign of an underlying condition that may affect the inside of the body without necessarily causing any other obvious symptoms.

Itching can be a symptom of:

Occasionally, itching can be linked to a psychological condition such as depression or anxiety.

Pregnancy and the menopause

In women, itching can sometimes be caused by hormonal changes during pregnancy and after the menopause.

Pregnancy

Itching often affects pregnant women and usually disappears after the birth. A number of skin conditions can develop during pregnancy and cause itchy skin. They include:

  • pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP) - a common skin condition that causes itchy, red, raised bumps that appear on the thighs and abdomen (tummy)
  • prurigo gestationis - a skin rash that appears as red, itchy dots and mainly affects the arms, legs and torso
  • obstetric cholestasis - a rare disorder that affects the liver during pregnancy and causes itching without a rash

Seek advice from your midwife or GP if you have itching or any unusual skin rashes during your pregnancy.

Read more about itching and obstetric cholestasis in pregnancy.

Menopause

Itching is also a common symptom after the menopause, which is where a woman's periods stop as a result of natural hormonal changes as she gets older.

Changes in the levels of hormones, such as oestrogen, that occur during the menopause are thought to be responsible for the itching.


Treating itching

The treatment for itching will largely depend on the cause.

Read more about some of the causes of itching.

However, there are some things you can try - and treatments your GP or pharmacist can offer - that may help relieve an itch and reduce the risk of skin damage caused by scratching.

General tips

  • keep your nails clean, short and smooth
  • try patting or tapping the itchy area, rather than scratching it
  • wear cotton gloves at night to prevent damage from scratching in your sleep
  • hold a cold compress, such as damp flannel, over the affected area to cool it down
  • avoid spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine, as these can affect the blood flow in your skin and make itching worse

Bathing

  • use cool or lukewarm water, rather than hot water
  • keep baths to less than 20 minutes
  • try to reduce how often you have a bath or shower if possible
  • avoid using perfumed soap, shower gel or deodorants - unperfumed substitutes are often available from pharmacists
  • use unperfumed moisturising lotions and emollients after bathing or showering to help prevent your skin becoming too dry
  • dab or pat your skin dry, rather than rubbing it

Clothing and fabrics

  • avoid clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool and some man-made fabrics
  • wear cotton or silk whenever possible
  • avoid tight-fitting clothes
  • use mild laundry detergent that is less likely to irritate your skin
  • use cool, light, loose bedclothes

Medication

Some lotions, creams and medications available over the counter from pharmacies or on a prescription from your GP can help reduce itchiness.

Common treatments recommended include:

  • an oily moisturiser or emollient if your skin is dry or flaky
  • creams containing menthol to cool your skin or anti-itch ingredients such as crotamiton
  • mild steroid cream (usually for only a few days) for small, inflamed areas - hydrocortisone cream is available from pharmacies over the counter, or your GP can prescribe a steroid cream for you
  • antihistamine tablets to help control allergic reactions - check with your pharmacist or GP before using these because they are not suitable for everyone

Some antihistamine tablets can make you feel drowsy. This may be helpful if taken at night to help you sleep, but it's important not to drive, use power tools or operate heavy machinery after taking them.

If you have itching in hairy areas such as your scalp, lotions are available specifically for these areas, so you don't have to use sticky creams.

There are also some more powerful medications, such as antidepressants, which may be recommended if the above treatments don't help and your itch is particularly long-lasting.



 
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