When we get an itch, it’s human nature to scratch it. But for some people, itching – known medically as pruritus – can be a big problem.
There are many causes of itchiness, from dry skin to pregnancy to conditions such as eczema. Significantly itchy skin is common, affecting around 8-9% of people in any two week period.
Most of us can manage to keep our itching under control, but for others it can set up something called the itch-scratch cycle. Your skin feels itchy, so you scratch to relieve the itch, but this makes the skin feel irritated and itchy, so you scratch again. All this scratching then damages your skin barrier, leading to the following conditions:
CONDITIONS LINKED TO ITCHY SKIN
It’s not known how itchy skin develops, though it does seem like our need to itch is triggered when chemicals like histamine are released in the skin. There are many things that can start this reaction. However, one of the most common causes is dry skin. Itchy skin can also happen more often if you are pregnant or you have other skin conditions such as eczema and/or urticaria, – or suffer a reaction to insect bites and stings.
Itchiness over large parts of the body may be due to an underlying medical condition such as kidney, liver or thyroid problems, which accounts for 10-50% of cases of widespread itch. For some people, there’s no obvious cause at all for itchy skin.
Insect bites and stings
Itchy Skin triggers and factors
Allergens and irritants
Weather and temperature
How to manage itchy skin
There are many different treatments available that can help relieve itchy skin, depending on what’s causing it and how bad it is.
Itchy skin can be soothed and relieved by using an emollient, the name for moisturisers. In fact, if you have widespread itching, emollients are often recommended as your first-choice treatment, including for relieving pregnancy itch (*). Emollients are also often recommended as a first-choice treatment for atopic eczema, contact dermatitis, dry skin and psoriasis.
Finding a way to manage the itchy symptom is important. Some emollients contain extra ingredients that specifically act on itchiness. These ingredients include lauromacrogols, which relieve itch through a local anaesthetic action, and crotamiton.
Emollients should be applied to the skin regularly, sometimes even multiple times a day. Applying emollients daily can help irritated skin by:
- Adding moisture to the skin and trapping it there
- Forming a protective barrier over the skin to keep irritants and allergens out
- Helping flare-ups of conditions, such as eczema.
Avoid regular soaps and cleansers as these can cause dryness and itching; instead wash with an emollient or soap substitute. Note that emollients don’t foam up the same way as soaps do. You can also add emollients to your bath.
(*) Medicines can affect the unborn baby. Always talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medicine in pregnancy.
Mild steroids creams and ointments can be bought from your pharmacy to help relieve contact dermatitis and mild-to-moderate eczema. These help manage flare-ups in atopic eczema by altering the body’s responses to inflammatory reactions. Always check the label for how to use the product correctly; always check who can use the product as many over the counter steroids having limitations regarding age and pregnancy.
It’s important to know that steroids are applied differently to emollients:
- Apply very thinly and to just the affected area
- Apply once or twice a day for a maximum of 7 days
- Only apply to certain parts of the body and not to the face, eyes, broken or infected skin, genital areas or the bottom
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should speak to your doctor before using a steroid cream.
Always carry on using your emollient alongside your steroid but leave about 20-30 minutes between applying each one. If it’s the first time you have used a steroid cream - as with any new medicine - speak to your pharmacist or doctor first to find out if it’s the right choice for you. They will also be able to give you tips on how to apply correctly.
If you find that using a mild steroid cream for a week doesn’t bring your eczema under control, see your doctor.
Antihistamines can be used to help relieve insect bites and stings, pregnancy itch, contact dermatitis and severe itch in atopic eczema. Ask your pharmacist or doctor which antihistamine is best for you, especially during pregnancy.
Speak to your pharmacist if:
- Self-care treatment has not worked
- It’s affecting your everyday life
- You’re concerned about your symptoms
- Your itchy skin lasts longer than two weeks or keeps coming back
- This is a new problem for you and you also have a rash, swelling or inflammation
- You’re itchy all over your body.
Self-care for itchy skin
Self-care can include avoiding triggers and using emollients and moisturisers daily for dry skin. In short, if you keep your skin hydrated, this can help keep itching at bay. Mild corticosteroids can be used for a short amount of time to reduce itching and irritation due to insect bites and during eczema and dermatitis flare-ups.