Introduction

Itching
Itching

Itchy skin is usually just an annoying but temporary problem, and rarely indicates a serious underlying cause.

But you should see your GP if your itch:

  • is severe
  • lasts for a long time
  • keeps coming back
  • is associated with other symptoms – such as redness and swelling, or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • is all over your body, with no obvious cause

Find your local GP.

 

 

Diagnosing the cause

The medical name for itching is pruritus.

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms – for example, if anything makes your itch worse, or if your itch comes and goes. They'll also examine your skin to look for 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.

blood test may also be carried out to look for underlying problems, such as thyroid or kidney disease.

Depending on the cause of your itch, you may be referred to a hospital specialist for a further assessment and specific treatment.

Common causes of itching

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

Read about the possible causes of itching.

Managing itching

If you experience troublesome itching, the following advice may help:

  • pat or tap the itchy area, rather than scratching it
  • hold a cold compress, such as a damp flannel, over the affected area to cool it down
  • bathe or shower in cool or lukewarm water
  • use unperfumed personal hygiene products
  • avoid clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool or man-made fabrics
  • use a moisturiser or emollient if your skin is dry or flaky

Over-the-counter medicines, such as antihistamines and steroid creams, may help relieve itching caused by certain skin conditions.

Read more about treatments to relieve itching.

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Causes

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:

  • cosmetics 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 also be caused by the following pests:

Infections

Itching may also 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 sometimes be a sign of an underlying condition, such as:

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 during pregnancy 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 skin rash

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

Read more information 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.

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Treatment

The best treatment for itching depends on the cause. You may be able to relieve itching and reduce the risk of skin damage caused by scratching with some simple self-help measures.

If necessary, your GP or pharmacist can offer treatments that may help relieve an itch.

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 as 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 like 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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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 22/09/2017 10:23:12