Whether youre dealing with dry skin, a mosquito bite, or a full-blown allergic reaction, youve likely experienced your fair share of itchiness. But if youve ever wondered exactly what causes an itch (which is called pruritus to dermatologists), it can be a really complicated thing, admits Alix J. Charles, MD, a dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
While were all intimately familiar with what an itch feels like, the sensation is one of the least understood and researched in the dermatology world, per a recent article in Dermatologic Therapy.
Sometimes, discovering what causes itching is easy and obvious (the poison ivy you accidentally touched while gardening). Other times, its difficult to figure out whats causing that must-scratch-now sensation, says Dr. Charles.
Here, we break down why we itch, common causes behind itching, the reason scratching feels so satisfying, and what to do if your itch just wont go away, with expert insight from dermatologists.
Put simply, you itch because your skin has receptors called pruriceptors (itch-sensing nerve endings) which get stimulated and, in turn, cause that itchy feeling, explains Melanie Grossman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. As part of the immune response, your body releases substances called histamines, triggering the itch.
Theres a deep-rooted evolutionary advantage to the itch: Its your bodys way of letting you know ASAP that something (an allergen, a parasite like bed bugs or ticks, or a would-be intruder) is irritating your skin, the protective barrier between you and the outside world. Here are a few more common culprits:
Sometimes, chemicals inside your body can cause itchy skin, says Dr. Grossman. For example, medications like opioids come with the common side effect of itchy skin (possibly because of shared pain-itch neurons), and illnesses like kidney and liver disease can cause itchiness due to a build-up of toxins.
This comes from the release of the chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine, which can accompany anxiety, depression, and stress. If youre going through a period of stress like a death in the family or divorce, we will sometimes see people itching for that reason, explains Dr. Charles. Heat can make you itchy, too.
This rare cause of itching occurs when theres really nothing wrong with the skin at all, but the brain itself perceives itching somewhere, explains Dr. Charles. It happens when theres been damage to your nervous system (think: shingles, stroke, or even a burn injury).
Dry skin in need of some quality moisturizing can make you itch, says Dr. Charles. Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can also cause your skin to itch.
Essentially, scratching an itch feels good because it distracts you from the initial irritation with a new feeling. When you scratch an itch, youre actually creating a different sensation, which, depending on how hard you scratch it, could be severe or minimal pain, Dr. Grossman says. For a short period of time, this can also provide relief.
Of course, sometimes when you scratch an itch, you only exacerbate the need to itch due to the inflammation from scratching and the potential of creating new wounds on your skin. With more inflammation comes more itching.
The best treatment for itching is getting rid of the cause, says Dr. Grossman. After all: Its better to know what causes an itchwhether its your laundry detergent or dry skinthan simply scratching at its surface. Here, a few go-to home remedies and over-the-counter solutions for some of the most common itch triggers from the pros:
For dry skin: Avoid over-soaping itch-prone areas like your legs and lather up with a gentle moisturizing lotion, like this one from CeraVe.
For bug bites and other localized itching: Get rid of the source (as in, treat your dog for fleas or ditch your new detergent) and then try OTC solutions like 1 percent hydrocortisone anti-itch cream or calamine lotion for spot treatment.
For hives and allergy-induced itching: Take an OTC antihistamine like Benadryl. If that doesnt work, head for the dermatologist, says Dr. Charles.
For stress-induced itching: If you think your mental health could be at the root of your relentless itch, head to your doc for a proper ID. Along with stress management, medications for anxiety and depression could help relieve your itching.
For the mystery itch: If youve tried to address whats causing your itch (or you just cant figure it out), dont tackle your itch alone. Call your doctor or dermatologist for help, says Dr. Charles.
CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion
Aveeno Max Strength 1% Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Cream
Benadryl Ultratabs Antihistamine Allergy Relief
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