Itching is an unpleasant sensation that compels a person to scratch the affected area. Mild to moderate itching is a common symptom but occasionally may be severe and frustrating. The medical name for itching is pruritus.
Itching can affect any area of the body. It can either be:
- generalised – where itching occurs over the whole body
- localised – where itching only occurs in a particular area
Sometimes, there is a rash or a spot where the itching occurs.
Common causes of itching
Itching can be caused by a number of different conditions. For example:
- a skin condition, such as eczema
- an allergy or skin reaction
- a parasitic infestation, such as scabies
- insect bites and stings
- a fungal infection, such as athlete’s foot or thrush
- a systemic condition (one that affects the whole body), such as liver or kidney problems or an overactive thyroid gland
- hormonal changes during pregnancy or the menopause
Read more detailed information about possible causes of itching.
Things you can do
In many cases, treating the underlying condition will ease the itching. However, there are things you can do to relieve itching, including:
- using a cold compress, such as a flannel
- applying calamine lotion to the affected area
- using unperfumed personal hygiene products
- bathing in cool water
- not wearing clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool or man-made fabrics
- keeping skin moist
Read more about treatments to relieve itching.
When to see your doctor
Many cases of itching will get better over a short period of time. However, it is important to visit your doctor if your itching is not improving or is affecting your quality of life.
You should see your doctor if your itching is:
- lasts for a long time
- keeps coming back
- is associated with other symptoms, such as breathing problems, skin inflammation or jaundice
Also visit your doctor as soon as possible if your entire body itches and there is no obvious cause. It could be a symptom of a more serious condition.
Your doctor may carry out tests to determine the cause of the itching, such as:
- a skin scraping – the affected area of skin is scraped to obtain a sample, which can be analysed to help diagnose a skin condition
- a vaginal or penile swab if a yeast infection is suspected; a small plastic rod with a cotton ball on one end will be used to obtain the sample
- a blood test to see if the cause is an underlying disease, such as diabetes, thyroid or kidney disease
- a biopsy – the area is numbed and a tissue sample is removed for analysis
There are many different possible causes of itching.
For example, itching can be a symptom of:
- a skin condition, such as eczema
- an allergy – for example, to nickel (a metal often used to make costume jewellery)
- insect bites or scabies
- fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot and female thrush or male thrush
- certain chronic (long-term) conditions, such as liver disease
- hormonal changes in the body, such as during the menopause or pregnancy
Each of these possible causes of itching is described in more detail below.
Skin conditions that can cause itching include:
- dry skin
- eczema – a chronic (long-term) condition where the skin is dry, red, flaky and itchy
- contact dermatitis – a condition where the skin becomes inflamed
- urticaria – also known as hives, welts or nettle rash; urticaria is triggered by an allergen, such as food or latex, and causes a raised, red itchy rash to develop
- lichen planus – an itchy, non-infectious rash of unknown cause
- psoriasis – a non-infectious skin condition that causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin and silvery scales
- dandruff – a common, non-contagious skin condition that affects the scalp
- folliculitis – a skin condition caused by inflamed hair follicles
- prurigo – small blisters (fluid-filled swellings) that are very itchy
Allergies and skin reactions
Itching is sometimes caused by environmental factors, such as:
- dyes or coatings on fabrics
- contact with certain metals, such as nickel
- contact with the juices of certain plants or stinging plants
- an allergy to certain foods or types of medication (for example, aspirin and a group of medicines called opioids)
- prickly heat – an itchy rash that appears in hot, humid weather conditions
- sunburn – skin damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays
Parasites and insects
Itching can also be caused by the following pests:
- the scabies mite, which burrows into the skin and causes a skin condition called scabies
- head lice, pubic lice or body lice
- insect bites and stings, such as bees, wasps, mosquitoes, fleas and bedbugs
Itching may also be a symptom of an infection, such as:
- chickenpox or another viral infection
- a fungal infection, such as athlete's foot, which causes itching in between the toes, jock itch which affects the groin, and ringworm, a contagious condition that causes a ring-like red rash to develop on the body
- a yeast infection, such as female thrush or male thrush, which can cause itching in and around the genitals
Fungal and yeast infections tend to cause itching in a specific area of the body. However, in untreated cases, or cases that do not respond well to treatment, itching may become generalised.
Systemic conditions are conditions that affect the entire body. Sometimes, itching can be a symptom of systemic conditions, such as:
- an overactive thyroid or underactive thyroid – the thyroid gland is found in the neck; it produces hormones to help control the body's growth and metabolism (the process of turning food into energy)
- liver-related conditions, such as primary biliary cirrhosis, liver cancer, pancreatic cancerand hepatitis
- long standing kidney failure
- leukaemia – cancer of the blood
- some types of cancers, such as breast, lung and prostate cancer
- Hodgkin's lymphoma – cancer of the lymphatic system, which is a series of glands (or nodes) spread throughout your body that produce many of the specialised cells needed by your immune system
Pregnancy and the menopause
In women, itching can sometimes be caused by hormonal changes.
Itching often affects pregnant women and usually disappears after the birth. A number of skin conditions can develop during pregnancy and cause itchy skin. They include:
- pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP) – a common skin condition during pregnancy that causes itchy, red, raised bumps that appear on the thighs and abdomen (tummy)
- prurigo gestationis – a skin rash that appears as red, itchy dots and mainly affects the arms, legs and torso
- obstetric cholestasis – a rare disorder that affects the liver during pregnancy and causes itching of the skin without a skin rash
Read more information about itching and obstetric cholestasis in pregnancy.
Pregnant women may also experience eczema and psoriasis.
Seek advice from your midwife or doctor if you have itching or any unusual skin rashes during your pregnancy.
Itching is also a common symptom of the menopause, which is where a woman’s periods stop, at around 52 years of age, as a result of hormonal changes. Changes in the levels of hormones, such as oestrogen, that occur during the menopause are thought to be responsible for the itching.
The type of treatment you receive for itching will depend on the cause.
If you are referred for further investigations, there are things you can do to give yourself some relief.
Using a cold compress such as damp flannel, or applying calamine lotion to the affected area may help relieve your itching.
When bathing or showering you should:
- use cool or lukewarm water (not hot)
- avoid using perfumed soap, shower gel or deodorants; unperfumed lotions or aqueous cream are available from your pharmacist
- use unperfumed moisturising lotions and emollients after bathing or showering to help prevent your skin becoming too dry
Clothing and fabric
Regarding clothing and bed linen, you should:
- avoid wearing clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool and some man-made fabrics
- wear cotton whenever possible
- avoid tight-fitting clothes
- use mild laundry detergent that will not irritate your skin
- use cool, light, loose bedclothes
With regard to medication, you can use:
- an oily moisturiser or emollient if your skin is dry or flaky
- mild steroid cream (for no longer than seven days) for localised, inflamed, itchy areas – hydrocortisone cream is available from pharmacies over the counter, or your doctor can prescribe a steroid cream for you
- antihistamine tablets to help control allergic reactions and help break the itch-scratch cycle – consult your doctor before using these because they are not suitable for all cases of itching
Antihistamine tablets may also make you feel drowsy, therefore it's important you do not drive, use power tools or heavy machinery while taking them.
Some antidepressants such as paroxetine or sertraline can help relieve itching (if your doctor prescribes these, it does not mean you are depressed).
If you have itching in hairy areas, such as your scalp, lotions can be prescribed specifically for these areas, rather than using sticky creams.