What is itchy skin?
Itchy skin, also known as pruritis, is a common irritation of the skin that makes you want to scratch the itchy area. It can occur anywhere on the body and can be very frustrating and uncomfortable.
Itching may occur on a small part of the body, for example around the area of an insect bite, or it can affect the whole body such as an allergic reaction.
Itchy skin is usually not serious. But sometimes it can be caused by a serious medical condition.
What causes itchy skin?
Common causes of itchy skin include:
Dry skin: Skin can become dry and itchy in hot or cold, dry weather, or from using soap. Dry skin looks flaky and rough but it is not usually very itchy or red. Sometimes the skin can crack, which can be painful.
Insect bite: There will usually be a bump or blister around the bite. The area may be inflamed, painful and swollen.
Hives: Hives or urticaria is a raised, bumpy red or skin coloured rash that is very itchy. The rash is often on the chest, abdomen or back, but it can appear anywhere. The rash will last from a few hours to 24 hours and then disappear with no scarring.
Heat rash: Heat rash looks like little pink or red spots or blisters. They can appear anywhere on the skin. Heat rash, also called miliaria or prickly heat, is very common in babies.
Eczema: Eczema causes itchy, red, scaly patches on the skin. The patches are usually on the cheeks, elbow creases and behind the knees. Eczema is common in children and often runs in families who have conditions like allergies, hay fever or asthma. Eczema is also called atopic dermatitis.
Scabies: Scabies is an extremely itchy skin rash caused by small mites. There will be red lumps and threadlike tracks on the skin. These usually appear between the fingers and toes, on the insides of the wrists, in the armpits, around the tummy and groin or on the buttocks.
Psoriasis: Psoriasis causes thick red, scaly patches on the skin. The scales can be silvery white. The patches are often on the scalp, knees, elbows, belly button and between the buttocks.
Obstetric cholestasis: This is an uncommon condition which usually occurs in the last four months of pregnancy. It can cause generalised (all over) itching of the skin, usually without a rash. The whole of the body may be affected, including the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. You usually have itching but no rash.
Itchy skin can sometimes be caused by certain medications, recreational drugs or herbal supplements.
In older adults, itchy skin can sometimes be the sign of a serious medical problem such as kidney failure, liver disease, a blood disorder, over or underactive thyroid, HIV, advanced cancer, a condition that affects the nervous system, or a mental health disorder.
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When should I see my doctor?
See your doctor if you are very itchy and there is no rash. It is very important to let them know about the medications/supplements, drugs or herbal medicines you may have taken.
- the lips or tongue are swollen
- you or your child have trouble breathing
- you are unwell or have a fever
- the symptoms keep coming back
- the itching is so bad you cannot sleep
- the rash is bleeding, scabs or has pus
- you develop severe itching while you are pregnant
It is always a good idea to see a doctor if your baby develops a rash.
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How is itchy skin treated?
The treatment of itchy skin depends on what is causing it. Your doctor may need to take a skin biopsy, blood, urine or stool (poo) samples, or order some radiology tests to diagnose the cause.
If you have itchy skin, here are some things that may help:
- Try not to scratch the area. The more you scratch, the more the skin will itch.
- Keep your nails short to prevent breaking the skin if you do scratch.
- A cool bath or shower may help provide short-term relief, but excessive showering or bathing may make it worse.
- After a bath or shower gently pat yourself dry with a clean towel. Do not rub or use the towel to scratch yourself.
- Do not use any soaps, shower gels or foam bath products as they can dry the skin and make the itching worse. Use a soap-free wash.
- Use moisturiser all over the skin at least 2 times a day, and more often if the skin feels dry. You can buy cooling moisturisers that contain menthol to soothe the itch.
- Try to wear loose cotton clothing which can help prevent you overheating and making the itch worse. Avoid fabrics which irritate your skin like wool or scratchy fabrics.
- Reducing stress and considering meditation, yoga, hypnosis or exercise can be helpful.
Your pharmacist may be able to recommend some products which can help with itchy skin.
Can itchy skin be prevented?
To prevent itchy skin, use moisturiser after a shower or bath, while your skin is still damp. Make sure you have quick showers and don’t have the water too hot.
Drinking lots of water to keep well hydrated and using a humidifier in dry weather can help.
You can also use a mild soap or a non-soap cleanser to prevent itchy skin.
Complications of itchy skin
It's quite common to find that after you have scratched an itch that it becomes more persistent (itchier) and you get into a cycle of itching and scratching. This can be painful and can sometimes lead to an infection if the skin is broken.
The scratching can also lead to brown or pale marks on the skin, lumps, bruising or scarring.
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Last reviewed: August 2021