Why Scratching Feels So Good (But Is So Bad)

When you’ve got an itch, you probably want to scratch it. But whether it’s from a mosquito bite, chickenpox, or chronic skin issue like eczema, any relief from scratching will be short-lived. And too much scratching can make the problem much worse.

Science of Scratching

Your muscles, joints, and organs can hurt. But your skin is the only part of your body that can feel both pain and itch.

An itch can be triggered by something outside your body, such as poison ivy, or by something happening on the inside, such as psoriasis or allergies.

Though it feels good, scratching actually triggers mild pain in your skin. Nerve cells tell your brain something hurts, and that distracts it from the itch. It can make you feel better in that moment, but 1 in 5 people say scratching makes them itch somewhere else on their body.

Sometimes the pain from scratching makes your body release the pain-fighting chemical serotonin. It can make the itch feel even itchier.

That’s why the more you scratch, the more you itch. The more you itch, the more you scratch. This cycle can be tough to break, especially if your itch is really bad.

Different Itches

Not all itches are alike. Many happen when your body reacts to pollen, nuts, and other allergens -- your immune system makes a chemical called histamine. Others come from a problem with your nervous system, like shingles or a stroke. With those, you might feel numbness and tingling along with the itch.

If you have psoriasis, your itching may feel more like burning. Some people compare it to being attacked by fire ants. Some drugs, like one used to treat malaria, cause a painful all-over itch.

Whatever the reason, it’s important not to scratch too much. It can lead to skin wounds, infections, and scarring. It can also make you anxious and stressed.

Tips for When You Itch

If you can’t take it and you simply must scratch, try not to use your fingernails. Instead, rub, pat, tap, or tightly hold the itchy area. You can also gently pinch your skin.

Continued

It helps to keep your nails short so you’re less likely to break your skin if you do scratch. You can also try wearing gloves to bed to protect your skin while you’re asleep.

You can try a few other things to deal with the urge to scratch:

Avoid “itch triggers.” Whether it’s a wool sweater, hot room, or a certain cleaning product, know what sets off your skin, then try to steer clear.

Cool off. A wet compress or cold shower can ease the itching.

Take care of your skin. Dry skin will make itching worse. Don’t take long, hot showers or baths. Use a gentle, scent-free lubricating soap, and stay away from perfumed products.

Apply lotion. At least once a day, use moisturizing cream to soothe your itchy skin. Your doctor may suggest something that has menthol or calamine in it to cool your skin.

Ask your doctor. If over-the-counter creams don’t work, ask about prescription meds. For example, corticosteroids can help ease the itch from eczema and psoriasis. If it’s caused by nerve pain, like with multiple sclerosis, an antidepressant or anti-seizure drug might work.

Watch for infection. Call your doctor if your skin is tender to the touch, begins to smell, or oozes pus.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on July 06, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Washington University, St. Louis: “Why scratching makes you itch more.”

University of California Berkeley: “Pain and itch connected deep down.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Dry Skin/Itchy Skin.”

Mayo Clinic: “Itchy skin (pruritus.)”

National Psoriasis Foundation: “Managing Itch.”

NHS Choices: “Eczema in Children: 7 Steps to Stop the Itch,” “Itching -- Treatment,” “Topical Corticosteroids.”

Nature Reviews Neuroscience: “Sensory neurons and circuits mediating itch.”

Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery: “Management of Itch in Atopic Dermatitis.”

British Medical Journal: “Referred itch (Mitempfindung.)”

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: “What Makes Us Itch?”

Cancer Research UK: “Tips to cope with itching.”

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: “Itching.”

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