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It’s annoying, uncomfortable, and just plain unpleasant. Itchy skin, or pruritus, is one of the ways our body tells us that something isn’t quite right, but how do we know what that “something” is? And what can we do about it? Here are 11 reasons why you might be suffering from itchy skin and what you can do to find relief.
#1 Dry Skin
Dry skin (officially called xerosis) is a very common issue that people both young and old are faced with every day. While genetics can play a role, dry skin is often caused by certain internal and external factors.
If you have mild-to-moderate dry skin, find a gentle moisturizer that works for you and use it daily. Avoid taking hot showers and using harsh soaps, and stay properly hydrated. Protect your skin by layering up in cold and/or harsh conditions. Also, use a humidifier during the winter to counteract the drying effects of central heating. If your dry skin becomes chronic and/or severe, it may be time to see a dermatologist. For more tips on treating dry skin, check out “At Last, Natural Dry Skin Remedies That Really Work.”
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Itchy skin accompanied by swelling, soreness, or skin patches may be a sign of eczema, or atopic dermatitis. Eczema is a chronic inflammatory disease that can develop during the first few years of life, but some cases can continue into adulthood. It’s not contagious, but it does run in families.
It’s important for eczema sufferers to discover the triggers that can cause flare-ups, which can include stress, soaps, dust, animal dander, and perspiration. Eczema is often treated with corticosteroids, antibiotics, and/or antihistamines, but the symptoms can be alleviated with moisturizers and lukewarm baths. For more on eczema, check out “Eczema: What You Can Do About This Common But Complex Skin Condition.”
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes a fast turnover of skin cells on some or all parts of the body and can cause itchy skin, scaly patches, and pus-filled bumps. Depending on the type and severity of psoriasis, a dermatologist will recommend a treatment plan that can include corticosteroids, retinoids, salicylic acid, and moisturizers. Like eczema, it’s important to keep your skin hydrated and avoid triggers, such as stress.
Psoriasis sufferers should also be aware of the condition’s link to heart disease and a form of arthritis. For more information, check out “Psoriasis Care Includes Medication, Lifestyle Changes.”
#4 Insect Bites
During the summertime, insect bites are often to blame for itchy skin. Bites from mosquitos, bedbugs, fleas, spiders, and ticks can cause your immune system to release histamines, which can make your skin swell and feel itchy. Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream can help relieve the itch, but to prevent insect bites in the first place, wear protective clothing and use insect repellent spray when outdoors.
#5 Allergic Reactions
The histamines in your body not only try to protect you from insect bites, but also from any allergens seen as a threat. If you start to get itchy skin after eating a specific food, spending time outdoors, wearing certain fabrics, touching poison ivy, or playing with an animal, it’s a sign that you’re having an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis.
There are both prescription and OTC antihistamines that can block the reaction in your body and help relieve your symptoms, but if your itchy skin is accompanied by hives, coughing, wheezing, swelling of the throat, or trouble breathing, you should seek immediate medical attention. For more on antihistamines, check out “Antihistamines: Uses, Types, and Side Effects of a Popular Allergy Medication.”
While there are medications that can help relieve your itchy skin, there are others that can cause it. According to LiveStrong.com, people with a sensitivity to aspirin often experience itchy skin, hives, and a runny nose. Opioids, such as oxycodone, and antibiotics, such as penicillin, are also known to cause itchy skin. The reaction may not be a sign of a serious or life-threatening condition, but if you experience itchy skin while to taking any of these medications, contact your doctor to discuss your options.
If it gets bad enough, stress has the potential to negatively impact your hair, skin, and nails. As mentioned earlier, stress can make your eczema or psoriasis worse, but it can also cause you to break out in hives, which are bumps on your skin that are itchy, red, and swollen. (Hives can also be triggered by heat, alcohol use, and intense exercise.) The best way to alleviate your symptoms is to find ways to manage your stress levels through diet, sleep, exercise, and stress-relieving techniques such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
#8 Internal Illness
Thyroid disease, anemia, liver disease, and kidney failure are just a few of the diseases that can cause dry and itchy skin. Certain types of cancer, including lymphoma and leukemia, also can affect your skin. Itchy skin isn’t normally a symptom of skin cancer, but it can sometimes be associated with basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Itching can also be result of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation. For more information, check out “Is Skin Cancer Itchy?”
#9 Nutritional Deficiencies
Itchy skin that’s chronic may be a sign that you’re deficient in niacin, vitamin A, and/or biotin, according to LiveStrong.com. In addition, zinc, protein and essential fatty acids are nutrients that are important for maintaining healthy skin. Chronic itching has also been linked to low blood calcium levels. For more information, check out “Vitamins for Skin Health.”
#10 Nerve Disorders
Conditions that affect the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis, shingles, pinched nerves, and diabetes mellitus, can cause itchy skin due to nerve damage. Severe itching of the skin on the arms specifically caused by a pinched nerve is often diagnosed as brachioradial pruritus and can result in stinging, tingling, bruising and hyperpigmentation.
The loss of estrogen during menopause can cause itchy skin in mature women, according to Healthline.com. Estrogen is directly related to the production of collagen, which keeps your skin strong and supple, as well as the production of natural oils that keep your skin moisturized.
How to Relieve Itchy Skin
The following are some additional tips on how to relieve itchy skin at home, according to the American Academy of Dermatology:
- Add some oatmeal to your bathwater. Oatmeal is soothing to itchy skin caused by sunburn, poison ivy, or chickenpox.
- Wear loose-fitting cotton clothes. Rough fabrics, such as wool, can irritate your skin and make it feel itchy.
- Try switching to fragrance-free lotions, soaps, and laundry detergents. The less chemicals you put on your skin, the better.
- Apply topical medications before applying moisturizers. Giving the medications prescribed by your dermatologist the chance to absorb into your skin before applying anything else will make them more effective.
- Apply an ice pack. A cool, wet cloth for five to 10 minutes can also provide quick relief.
- Try not to scratch! Scratching often makes the itching worse and it can introduce bacteria into your skin, which can cause redness, swelling, and scarring.
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.