Itchy skin or pruritus in medical terms is an uncontrolled scratching sensation of the affected area for relief. Itching can occur all over the body or can be localized to a region. Itching may last for a short time or may also persist for a long time and gets worsened with repeated scratching. In most of the cases, itchy skin is not serious, but if there is any unexplained or intense itching all over the body, then medical attention is required.
There are numerous causes for itching which can range from a simple to a serious condition. The major causes of the itchy skin may include:
- Dry skin
- Common skin problems, such as dermatitis, psoriasis, and eczema
- Irritants, such as certain perfumes, soaps, dyes, or the substances released by the insects
- Infections including measles, chicken pox, fungal rashes, lice, scabies, and mites
- Nervous system disorders including diabetes, neuropathy, multiple sclerosis, and shingles
- Certain foods (food allergy)
- Common medications, such as narcotic painkillers, antifungals, antibiotics, and anti-convulsant drugs
- Certain internal disorders, such as diabetes, kidney failure, liver disease, anemia, leukemia, thyroid disease, and lymphoma
The symptoms may vary with the cause. Sometimes the skin may appear normal, but in other cases, the following symptoms can be noticed:
- Redness of the skin
- Roughness of the skin
- Bumps on the skin
- Blisters on the skin
- Dryness or cracking of the skin
- Scaly skin
The following factors can increase the risk of developing itchy skin:
- Older adults due to the dry nature of their skin
- Prolonged exposure to air-conditioned rooms or centralized heating
Repeated scratching of the itchy skin can lead to skin damage, bleeding, infections or scarring of the affected area. It may also affect the quality of life of the person.
The doctor will ask for the symptom and collects the history of the patient. Later, the doctor performs a physical examination of the skin. If the cause is not identified, the doctor may order for some laboratory tests, which may include:
- Skin tests
- Blood tests
- Thyroid function test
- Kidney function test
- Liver function test
- Chest X-rays
- Scraping or biopsy of the skin
Treatment is based on the cause of itchy skin and the below medications are available to relieve the itching:
- Corticosteroid creams may be prescribed to treat itching and redness of the affected skin. After application, the skin should be covered with a damp cotton material soaked in water for better absorption of the cream.
- Calcineurin inhibitors may be prescribed instead of corticosteroids if the itching is confined to a small area.
- Certain anti-depressant drugs are also effective in relieving the itching associated with various conditions.
Phototherapy (light therapy) is another method which involves the exposure of the affected skin to a certain wavelength of UV light in multiple sessions to relieve itching.
If there is an underlying cause such as kidney disease, thyroid problem or iron deficiency, then treatment will be provided to eliminate the cause in addition to the above medicines.
The following home remedies can help to soothe itchy skin to a large extent. However, it is always advisable to consult a doctor for diagnosis of the underlying cause:
- Use a good quality moisturizer or gel to cool the skin.
- Avoid scratching of the skin as it can worsen the condition, instead pat or tap the itchy area.
- Hold a cold compress over the affected area to cool it and reduce itching.
- Take a bath with baking soda.
- Avoid clothing which can irritate the skin.
- Avoid the use of soaps or detergents that contain dyes or perfumes.
- Use an over-the-counter anti-itch cream or anti-histamines.
- Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
- Use a humidifier