Why Do My Legs Itch?

Is there a spot on your leg you can’t stop scratching? Do your legs often feel itchy all over? If you said yes to either question, you know how distressing this symptom can be.

Itching can wake you up in the middle of the night. After a while, it can cause anxiety and even depression. If you scratch, that can make it even more intense.

There are many reasons why your legs itch. Some are no big deal, such as dry winter skin or wearing rough fabrics. Others are more serious.

Diabetes

Diabetes can lead to widespread problems, including pruritis -- the medical term for unusually itchy skin. When you have itchy legs with diabetes, the cause may be:

  • High blood sugar. This can cause extremely dry skin, which triggers the urge to scratch.
  • Poor circulation. Common in diabetes, poor circulation can also cause itchy legs.
  • Nerve damage (neuropathy). Pain and numbness are typical symptoms of diabetic nerve damage, but some people get a sensation called neuropathic itch.
  • Diabetic kidney disease (nephropathy). Kidney disease is common in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. One symptom is a persistent itch.
  • Eruptive xanthomatosis. When your diabetes isn’t well controlled, you may have outbreaks of small, itchy, pimple-like bumps. They usually appear on your thighs, the backs of your knees, your buttocks, or the crooks of your elbows.
  • Skin conditions. Skin conditions can be chronic, which means they stick around for a long time -- possibly your lifetime. They can also last just hours or days. Skin conditions that can cause itchy legs include:

You may have extremely dry, itchy skin without a root cause. This is a skin condition on its own. The medical term is xerosis.

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Certain Diseases

Itchiness may be a sign of serious disease -- one you may or may not know you have.

  • Lymphomas. Itching often happens in people with Hodgkin's lymphoma and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
  • Skin cancer. Many times, the only sign of this cancer is a spot on your skin. It can be new or a mole that changes shape or size. Sometimes it will itch -- this may be what makes you notice it.
  • Advanced kidney disease. Even if your condition isn’t related to diabetes, an itch is a common symptom when your kidneys begin to fail and you need dialysis.
  • Liver disease. Does the itch start on your palms or the soles of your feet, then spread outward? There could be a problem with your liver. You may have cirrhosis or a blocked bile duct. Hepatitis C, a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver, can also cause itchy skin. Fortunately, it’s often curable with medications you take for 2 to 6 months.
  • Thyroid disease. Thyroid problems are another possible cause of itchy skin. In some cases, thyroid disease can cause chronic hives. These look like raised, itchy, red, or skin-colored patches that can come and go.

Allergic Reactions

Take a close look at your itchy legs. Are they red because you’ve scratched them, or is there a rash? Itchy rashes are a sign of an allergic skin reaction called contact dermatitis. These are some common triggers:

  • Nickel (found in many metals, including zippers)
  • Fragrances
  • Shampoos
  • Latex
  • Cement
  • Poison ivy
  • Laundry detergents
  • Fabric softeners

Medications

Sometimes an itch is a side effect of medication. It’s especially common with opioid painkillers. The itch from these drugs doesn’t usually come with a rash or hives.

Several cancer medications cause the sensation, too. These drugs may or may not cause skin symptoms.

An itch can also be a sign of an allergic reaction. In fact, skin reactions are the most common form of allergic reaction to a drug. These are some of the drugs that often cause allergic reactions:

  • Penicillin-based antibiotics
  • Sulfa drugs
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Chemotherapy

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Four Simple Itch Treatments

Some home treatments can reduce or stop the urge to scratch your legs. Here’s what dermatologists (skin doctors) suggest.

  • Apply cold to the area. Use an ice pack or a cool, wet cloth.
  • Take an oatmeal bath. Don’t use the breakfast kind, though. The type you want is a fine powder called colloidal oatmeal. It helps clean, moisturize, and protect skin. It’s also an anti-inflammatory.
  • Keep skin hydrated. Doctors suggest this simple step for itch relief even when there’s a serious cause, such as kidney disease. Be sure to use a fragrance-free moisturizer to reduce the chances of irritation.
  • Try a pain-relief cream with pramoxine. This ingredient can give you short-term relief from:
    • Insect bites
    • Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac
    • Minor skin irritations
    • Rashes
    • Very dry skin

When to See a Doctor

You’re never wrong to call your doctor whenever you have a health concern. Itching is no exception. But to help you decide between toughing it out and making an appointment, here’s some advice that can help.

Experts say you should see a doctor if your itch:

  • Lasts more than 2 weeks despite home treatments
  • Is severe, distracting, or keeps you up at night
  • Comes on fast for no clear reason
  • Affects your whole body
  • Comes on with other symptoms, including extreme tiredness or fever

Often, treatment of the base cause will give you relief. It can help to get your diabetes under control or stop taking a drug that causes itching.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on April 23, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Itchy skin (pruritus),” “Diabetic neuropathy,” “Diabetic nephropathy,” “Hepatitis C,” “Chronic hives.”

American Academy of Dermatology: “Diabetes: 12 warning signs that appear on your skin,” “10 reasons your skin itches uncontrollably and how to get relief.”

Hippokratus: “Pruritus in certain internal diseases.”

Diabetes Care: “Barely Scratching the Surface.”

Seminars in Nephrology: “Pruritus in Kidney Disease.”

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: “Skin Allergy,” “Medications and Drug Allergic Reactions,” “Drug Allergies.” 

Current Problems in Dermatology: “Drug-induced Itch Management.”

Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: “Colloidal oatmeal: history, chemistry and clinical properties.”

MedlinePlus: “Pramoxine.”

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