You might have an itch that must be scratched. Or a tickle on your back that you can’t reach. The medical term for itching is pruritus.
A persistent itch can be maddening, but there's often a simple solution. You can try a different fabric, give your skin some extra care, and avoid anything that seems to trigger the itch. If that doesn’t help, see your doctor to figure out the cause and best treatment.
Causes of Itching Skin
It’s often hard to pin down just what’s causing an itch. It may be as simple as the clothes you wear. But it can also be a symptom of something more serious, like a rash or an illness.
Dry skin and itching
If your skin is dry, it will let you know with an itch. It can be especially bad in the winter and in places where the air is dry. As you get older, it becomes even more common.
Rash and itching
If you start scratching and find a rash, it’s likely the problem is in your skin. It can happen because of:
Bugs. When you get bitten by a mosquito or spider, you know it. Bites from bedbugs and mites can be harder to diagnose because they look like rashes. Lice can cause a crawling sensation in your scalp or pubic hair, along with an intense itch. (See a photo of what bedbug bites look like.)
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis. It shows up on your skin as dry, scaly patches or a bumpy rash. It isn’t clear what causes it, but it’s extremely itchy. Kids are more likely to get it if their family has a history of asthma and allergies. Certain food allergies can make it worse. So does scratching. (See a photo of what eczema looks like.)
Contact dermatitis. This itchy rash is caused by a reaction to something touching your skin. You may have to do some detective work to figure out where it’s coming from. It could be the metals in your jewelry or the chemicals in cosmetics, toiletries, and laundry products. Poison ivy is also a form of contact dermatitis. Stop using or wearing whatever you think might be the cause and see if the itching gets better. (See a photo of what a poisonous plant rash looks like.)
Hives. You get them from allergies. They look like raised welts that show up alone or in clusters, and they're usually itchy. Stress, heat, exercise, or exposure to the sun can also bring them out. (See a photo of what hives look like.)
Psoriasis. It makes your body overproduce skin cells, which pile up in itchy, inflamed patches on the skin’s surface. This is a result of an overactive immune system. (See a photo of what psoriasis looks like.)
Is it beneath the surface?
Your skin can often reflect what's going on somewhere else in your body.
Pregnancy. More than 1 in 10 pregnant women say itching is a problem. Mild itching usually isn't harmful to you or your baby and is caused by stretching skin and hormonal changes, but it can sometimes be a sign of a more serious condition, especially if it happens more often in the evenings or at night. Tell your doctor if you're itching so they can decide if you need to be tested. (Learn more about skin conditions in pregnancy.)
Medication. Some may make your skin itch, even with no signs of a rash or irritation. Check with your doctor if the itch becomes too uncomfortable. These drugs are known to make you start scratching:
- Certain high blood pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors
- Allopurinol for gout
- Amiodarone for heart rhythm problems
- Pills called diuretics that relieve bloating
- Hydroxyethyl cellulose (used during surgery)
- Prescription pain drugs called opioids
- Simvastatin for high cholesterol
- Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium
Your nervous system can get confused when it’s sick and accidentally tell the nerves on the skin to start itching when there’s nothing there to cause it. There is no rash. But your skin may appear irritated if you’ve been scratching a lot. You can get it from:
If your doctor can’t find a physical cause, it may be in your mind. Some mental conditions give people the urge to scratch or pick at themselves. They may feel like their skin is crawling with something. There is no rash, but there may be skin damage from scratching. Compulsive scratching can be a sign of:
(Learn more about skin picking disorder.)
Itching and underlying diseases
Itchiness usually has a simple, common cause. But in some cases, if it doesn’t go away, could be a sign of a serious illness, such as:
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Thyroid problems
- Certain cancers, particularly Hodgkin’s disease
- Iron deficiency
An itch caused by another condition usually affects your whole body and doesn't cause a rash. You might also start itching after the treatments for some of these illnesses. Kidney dialysis, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy have it as a side effect. (Learn more about chemotherapy side effects.)
Diagnosing the Cause of Your Itch
If the itch has been bothering your for a while and you can't figure out what's causing it, make an appointment to see your regular doctor or a dermatologist. You should get checked out quickly if the itch comes on suddenly, if it affects your whole body, or if you have other unusual symptoms, like a fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss.
A doctor can often tell what's going on by looking at your skin. They'll ask you about any other symptoms you're having and if you have any allergies. They may also give you:
- Blood tests to look for causes like anemia or liver problems
- A chest X-ray to look for signs of cancer
- A biopsy (examining a small piece of skin under a microscope) to pinpoint skin diseases
Treatment for Itching
Depending on what's causing it, your doctor may prescribe medicine or other treatments to help relieve your itch. That can include:
Corticosteroid creams. These are often used for psoriasis and eczema.
Other topical treatments. You may get a lotion or cream that contains a pain reliever, an antihistamine, or an immune-suppressing medication.
Oral medications. Drugs that work throughout your body to stop itching include antihistamines, corticosteroids, antidepressants, and drugs that calm your immune system.
Phototherapy. Certain types of itching can be relieved by exposing skin to ultraviolet light.
If you have a medical condition, getting treatment for that may end the itch.
Home Remedies for Itchy Skin
You may be able to ease an itch on your own by taking special care of your skin. These tips can also help soothe your skin while you're getting additional medical treatment.
- Use moisturizer after you bathe while your skin is still damp.
- Try an over-the-counter anti-itch cream, or one that has a cooling or numbing effect.
- A medicated shampoo can help with an itchy scalp.
- Cover itchy skin with a cool, damp cloth a few times a day.
- Make your shower quick, and don’t use very hot water.
- Use mild, hydrating soaps.
- Soak in a tub with cool water and a skin-soothing treatment like Epsom salts, baking soda, or an oatmeal-based bath product.
- Take an over-the-counter allergy medicine.
- Drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated.
- Use a humidifier.
- Try not to scratch. It can make a rash worse and lead to an infection.
- Choose clothing with soft fabric, and use cosmetics and laundry products meant for sensitive skin.
- Get plenty of rest and reduce stress.
- Keep cool.
Itching can be caused by many things, from dryness to skin diseases and other illnesses. You may be able to soothe it yourself by giving your skin some extra care. If you can't get relief, see your doctor to find out what's causing your itch and what's the best treatment.
What is body itching a symptom of?
Your skin often itches because it's dry, or because something that touches it is irritating it. It's also a symptom of skin diseases and infections. It can be a reaction to a medication, or connected to being pregnant. Less often, itching can be a sign of a more serious condition, like liver or kidney disease, thyroid problems, nervous system dysfunction, or blood cancers.
How can I stop my body from itching?
You can try to soothe an itch by keeping your skin moisturized, avoiding things that irritate your skin, and using an over-the-counter anti-itch cream. If that doesn't help, see your doctor about finding the cause and getting the right treatment.
When should I worry about itching?
Itching can mean something serious if it comes on suddenly with no obvious cause, if it affects your whole body, or if you have other symptoms you can't explain, like weight loss, fever, or night sweats. You should also see your doctor if your itch isn't getting better with treatment, or if it's keeping you from sleeping.