An irritating sensation in the skin, either localized or widespread

  • Age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle as risk factors depend on the cause

Itching, also known as pruritus, is a very common symptom and is associated with many skin disorders. The irritation may be either restricted to a small area or widespread over the body. Continual scratching, which often damages the skin, aggravates the problem.

What are the causes?

Localized itching can often be the result of an insect bite. Itching may also be associated with a rash. An itchy rash is the main symptom of conditions such as urticaria, eczema, lichen planus, and parasitic skin infestations such as scabies.

Widespread itching may develop as a result of dry skin, an irritant reaction to particular bath products or detergents, or an allergic reaction to certain drugs (see Drug allergy). It can also occur as a symptom of a serious underlying disorder, such as liver disease or chronic kidney failure.

Persistent patches of itchy skin may develop as a result of emotional stress. The itching typically affects the limbs and neck but can also involve other areas of the body. Frequent scratching, often unconsciously, causes the skin to thicken and can increase the itching, leading to a further cycle of scratching and itching. This condition, known as lichen simplex or neurodermatitis, is more common in females.

What can I do?

There are several measures that you can take to relieve itching and stop scratching. Emollients (see Emollients and barrier preparations) will help to moisturize dry and itchy skin, particularly if you apply them after washing or bathing. To relieve severe itching, you may find that using over-the-counter oral antihistamines (see Antipruritic drugs), topical corticosteroids, or calamine is helpful.

As far as possible, you should avoid substances that are likely to irritate the skin, such as scented bath products, detergents, or woollen garments. You may benefit from wearing loose-fitting clothing made of fabric that does not irritate the skin and from keeping your fingernails cut short so that you cannot damage your skin when scratching.

You should contact your doctor if you have persistent itching for which there is no obvious cause.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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