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Itching

Pruritus

Itching is a tingling or irritation of the skin that makes you want to scratch the area. Itching may occur all over the body or only in one location.

Causes

There are many causes of itching, including:

 

Generalized itching may be caused by:

Home Care

For itching that does not go away or is severe, see your health care provider.

In the meantime, you can take steps to help deal with the itch:

  • Do not scratch or rub the itchy areas. Keep fingernails short to avoid damaging the skin from scratching. Family members or friends may be able to help by calling attention to your scratching.
  • Wear cool, light, loose bedclothes. Avoid wearing rough clothing, such as wool, over an itchy area.
  • Take lukewarm baths using little soap and rinse thoroughly. Try a skin-soothing oatmeal or cornstarch bath.
  • Apply a soothing lotion after bathing to soften and cool the skin.
  • Use moisturizer on the skin, especially in the dry winter months. Dry skin is a common cause of itching.
  • Apply cold compresses to an itchy area.
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to excessive heat and humidity.
  • Do activities that distract you from the itching during the day and make you tired enough to sleep at night.
  • Try over-the-counter oral antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Be aware of possible side effects such as drowsiness.
  • Try over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream on itchy areas.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have itching that:

  • Is severe
  • Does not go away
  • Cannot be easily explained

Also call if you have other, unexplained symptoms.

With most itching, you do not need to see a provider. Look for an obvious cause of itching at home.

It is sometimes easy for a parent to find the cause of a child's itching. Looking closely at the skin will help you identify any bites, stings, rashes, dry skin, or irritation.

Have the itching checked out as soon as possible if it keeps returning and does not have a clear cause, you have itching all over your body, or you have hives that keep returning. Unexplained itching may be a symptom of a disease that could be serious.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your provider will examine you. You'll also be asked about the itching. Questions may include when it began, how long it has lasted, and whether you have it all the time or only at certain times. You may also be asked about medicines you take, whether you have allergies, or if you have been ill recently.

References

Legat FJ, Weisshaar E, Fleischer AB, Bernhard JD, Cropley TG. Pruritus and dysesthesia. In: Bolognia JL, Schaffer JV, Cerroni L, eds. Dermatology. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 6.

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    Allergic reaction can be provoked by skin contact with poison plants, chemicals and animal scratches, as well as by insect stings. Ingesting or inhaling substances like pollen, animal dander, molds and mildew, dust, nuts and shellfish, may also cause allergic reaction. Medications such as penicillin and other antibiotics are also to be taken with care, to assure an allergic reflex is not triggered.

    Allergic reactions

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  • Head lice - illustration

    Head lice infect the scalp and hair and can be seen at the nape of the neck and over the ears. Head lice spread easily and quickly but do not carry disease as other lice do.

    Head lice

    illustration

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    The skin is the largest organ of the body. The skin and its derivatives (hair, nails, sweat and oil glands) make up the integumentary system. One of the main functions of the skin is protection. It protects the body from external factors such as bacteria, chemicals, and temperature. The skin contains secretions that can kill bacteria and the pigment melanin provides a chemical pigment defense against ultraviolet light that can damage skin cells. Another important function of the skin is body temperature regulation. When the skin is exposed to a cold temperature, the blood vessels in the dermis constrict. This allows the blood which is warm, to bypass the skin. The skin then becomes the temperature of the cold it is exposed to. Body heat is conserved since the blood vessels are not diverting heat to the skin anymore. Among its many functions the skin is an incredible organ always protecting the body from external agents.

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Self Care

 
 

Review Date: 6/28/2018

Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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