12 Reasons Your Skin Is So Itchy–and When to Talk to a Doctor
What's causing your itchy skin?
Around 10% of people experience notable itching, officially called pruritus. You can have itchy skin due to simple dryness, poison ivy, chickenpox, bug bites, or more serious conditions like psoriasis and eczema. Sometimes itching plagues your whole body, other times just one place. Itchy skin can last for weeks–or more. Sometimes itchiness comes with redness, rashes, bumps, or cracked skin, and sometimes it doesn’t.
If you have itchy skin, you're going to want to get to know what’s causing it so you can figure out how to stop it. Most of the time it’s no big deal and may be as simple as following Grandma’s instructions: Don’t scratch!
Here are a few common itchy skin causes to look out for–and how to stop that itch.
This is one of the most common causes of itchy skin, and one that usually doesn’t come with a rash. Dry skin is especially common in older folks or people who smoke, spend too much time in the sun, or overuse skin products. It’s also prevalent in the winter and in dry environments.
Dry skin feels rough and flakes, but you shouldn’t see any red bumps or welts, which are usually a sign of something else. Dry skin often itches, but not always.
Your first strategy against dry skin is to moisturize three to four times a day. Limit the time you spend in the bath or shower, as this can further dry your skin.
A common next step is 1% hydrocortisone skin cream, available over the counter. If that doesn’t help after about a week, see your doctor; she may prescribe a stronger steroid cream or an antihistamine pill.
“The mainstay of eczema therapy is moisturize, moisturize, moisturize,” says Nishit Patel, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine in Tampa. “In mild cases, that may be enough.”
Choose your skincare products like soap carefully and avoid fragrances, he advises. Dry sheets, scratchy fabrics, and hot showers can also aggravate the condition. Topical steroids may help.
“What’s important are newer medications that are available for patients with atopic dermatitis,” says Luz Fonacier, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and professor of medicine at SUNY Stony Brook. “Before, there was nothing you could do [except] give topical steroids, moisturizers, and antihistamines.”
Allergic contact dermatitis
This type of itchy rash usually shows up where you came into contact with something you’re allergic or sensitive to, be it a chemical, paint, wool, or a fragrance. You may also have swelling or blisters that pop and leak fluid.
“Very commonly, [allergic contact dermatitis] looks just like eczema, but the distribution suggests there’s more of an external trigger,” says Dr. Patel.
Contact dermatitis can also be hard to identify because it can show up 72 hours or more after the exposure. In some cases, it may even turn up unexpectedly, even if you’ve been using the same product–like your favorite shampoo–for years.
“We don’t fully understand why, [but] the immune system is not stagnant over time,” says Dr. Patel.
Treat mild reactions with moisturizer and an over-the-counter topical corticosteroid and antihistamine. Talk to a doctor if you have a more severe case with a larger rash or swelling. Do your best to determine what you reacted to–so you can avoid it in the future.
Itching and a raised rash from poison ivy are classic examples of allergic contact dermatitis. You get poison ivy from touching the three-leaved plant or, more specifically, coming into contact with its urushiol oil. The oil might touch your skin while it’s still on the plant, or it could have spread to clothing or a lawn tool.
Most cases of poison ivy go away on their own in a couple of weeks. Try your best not to scratch the itchy areas. Over-the-counter products like calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream–as well as antihistamine pills–can help.
At home, bathing in cool water or putting a paste of baking soda and water on the rash may help tame your itchy skin.
If the rash persists beyond a week to 10 days or covers a majority of your body, or if you develop a fever or have trouble breathing, contact your doctor or go to the emergency room.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes skin cells to go through the life cycle more quickly than normal. This means the cells congregate on the surface of the skin forming scaly, red patches that are not only itchy but also sometimes painful.
Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of the disease. Treatment depends on how severe the condition is.
“You can sometimes get away with just topical treatments,” says Dr. Patel. “In those who progress to moderate or severe psoriasis, you start thinking about doing something from the inside. This is the golden age of psoriasis treatments; we have so many great options we didn’t used to have,” he says. Many of these are biologic drugs, which can block immune cells involved in the skin condition.
RELATED: 11 Signs You Could Have Psoriasis
Itching can be a side effect of many medications. The symptom can also come with rashes or eczema-like dry skin. “Medication allergies generally present as rash and itching,” explains Dr. Patel.
Some of the culprits are painkillers (both over-the-counter and prescription), antibiotics like penicillin or sulfa drugs, and certain psychiatric and anti-seizure medications.
Talk to your doctor if you take any of these meds and experience itchy skin. You may be able to find a substitute or change the dose–but never stop or adjust prescribed medications on your own.
If you have to stay on the medication, OTC antihistamines and ointments may help.
Although the kidneys may feel unrelated to your skin, chronic kidney disease can cause itching. This type of itchiness often affects large areas and is worse at night.
“The kidneys are tasked with clearing toxins from the system,” says Dr. Patel. “When you don’t have those working optimally, you can have a buildup of metabolites that can collect in the skin and become triggers.”
In fact, as many as 40% of people with end-stage renal disease may have itchy skin, which can severely affect quality of life.
Again, moisturizing is key. So is making sure you’re getting the best treatment for your kidney disease.
Like the kidneys, the liver is also involved in clearing toxins from your body. That means problems with the liver can also cause buildups that lead to itchy skin. The itching can be mild or severe, widespread or limited to certain areas (like the palms of the hands or soles of the feet). It can also come and go.
Itching related to liver disease tends to be worse before your period, when you’re under stress, and at night.
Moisturizers and warm baths may help mild itchiness, while more severe itching calls for medication.
RELATED: 5 Surprising Facts About Your Liver
Itching involves another process: People with diabetes tend to have dry skin, which is prone to fungal infections like jock itch and athlete’s foot, which in turn can cause itching in certain areas. This itching, says Dr. Fonacier, tends to occur in specific spots and not across the entire body.
Using mild soap and other skincare products along with not luxuriating too long in the bath or shower can help. Be sure to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize–and if problems get worse, talk to your doctor.
Chickenpox itself is a considerable source of itchy misery, but the itching associated with shingles usually comes after the hallmark blisters are gone.
“The skin has healed but there is residual itching in the area because the nerve is irritated,” explains Dr. Fonacier.
The varicella-zoster virus causes both chickenpox and shingles, and there’s no cure. The pain of shingles can be relieved by some medications, but easing the itch is a little trickier.
Topical solutions may help, but never put creams on lesions that are still active, says Dr. Fonacier. Talk to your doctor about other remedies.
RELATED: 5 Home Remedies for Shingles
Like with shingles, itching due to multiple sclerosis (MS) is a result of nerve problems. In this case, there is no rash to indicate a source, although people with MS can also get other skin conditions like psoriasis and insect bites that cause itchiness.
The nerve-related itching of MS is called a dysesthesia. “It’s an unpleasant or abnormal sensation, and it can be intense,” says Kathy Costello, associate vice president of healthcare access at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and a nurse with the Johns Hopkins MS Center in Baltimore.
Dysesthetic itching–and other MS dysesthesias, like pins and needles or burning pain–is treated with systemic medications that target the nerves. “It’s [caused by] an overabundance of neural activity, so basically you want to calm down the nerves,” Costello says.
Steroid skin ointments aren’t usually helpful, but certain antidepressants and anti-convulsants can be very effective.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter
In rare cases, itching can be a sign of cancer, usually a blood cancer.
One example is polycythemia vera, which affects the bone marrow. People with this disease might experience itchiness after a warm bath or shower along with other symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
Sézary syndrome, a type of lymphoma, can come with rashes, scaly skin, and itching as well.
People with pancreatic cancer may also itch–not from the cancer itself, but from a tumor blocking the bile duct.
Talk to your doctor about your symptoms–including if you have itchy skin while being treated for cancer, as some cancer treatments themselves can cause itching.