Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 17, 2015

Itchiness, also known a "pruritus," is a common symptom that is associated with various illnesses and conditions. Some conditions are more serious than others, so it is important to be able to identify when to seek medical care, for the sake of your health.


Definition & Facts

Pruritus is derived from the Latin word, "prurire", which was once a chronic skin ailment that caused severe itching. Itchiness is defined as a sensation felt on the skin that is relieving by scratching. The sensation can be felt anywhere on the body, and it can be felt everywhere or just localized to one or a few areas. Itchy skin can sometimes manifest into a rash, that can assist your doctors with a possible diagnosis, but this is not always the case.


There are multiple causes of itchiness, ranging from external irritants to internal illnesses that manifest in this symptom. Many people suffer from dry skin, especially during the winter months. Frequent hand-washing, and using harsh soaps can also cause dry skin that can lead to itchiness. Various parts of the body can be affected, but most often on the legs, arms, the stomach, and the thighs.

Itchiness is a common symptom associated with allergic reactions. When your body has an allergic reaction, it releases a protein called histamine that plays a role in the inflammatory response which then causes that desire to itch. Common allergic reactions that include itchiness are to pets, ragweed, and certain foods. Dermatitis translates to "skin inflammation". Contact dermatitis is a type of inflammation that occurs when you have direct contact with something that causes this itchy response.

This direct contact is usually with an allergenic substance or an irritant such as poisonous plants, or certain cosmetics. Bites and stings from insects can cause itchiness. A common culprit is the mosquito. Although the mosquito is tiny, the after effect can cause extreme itchiness. Other common bites and stings that can cause itchiness can come from scabies, lice, bed bugs, spiders, ants, ticks, and fleas. An overgrowth of the fungus, candida albicans, is also known as a yeast infection.

This type of infection can cause an itchy rash commonly found on skin folds, the buttocks, under the breasts,the stomach, or on hair follicles. The rash is often red, and can spread to other parts of the body. This type of itchiness is commonly known as "diaper rash" or "cradle cap" among babies, but can also be attributed to a variety of systemic issues such as diabetes, obesity, and being immunocompromised.

Whether it is viral hepatitis, or fatty liver disease, liver infections have been known to be related to itchiness. Although it is still being researched, it is believed that the liver's reduced ability to process toxins, and increased bilirubin levels in the blood are what cause the itching.

When to see a doctor

With itching being such a common symptom for many ailments, most people's symptoms resolve without seeking care from a medical doctor. However, there are some instances where you may have a more serious condition, and may need to seek treatment right away.

Itching associated sudden yellowing of the eyes, fever, stomach pain, vomiting, or nausea may be from something more serious, such as a gastrointestinal issue such as acute viral hepatitis. As viral hepatitis is contagious, and can potentially make you very ill, it is important that you see a medical doctor to rule out this possibility. Itching associated with shortness of breath can be life threatening, so it would be best to seek medical care especially if these symptoms are accompanied with tightness in your chest, or chest pain.

If the itching is not going away after using over-the-counter treatments after two weeks, or if it is so intense that you cannot live your life normally, you should seek care from a doctor to see if there are options to better treat your itching, or to treat a more serious underlying condition.

Treatment & Therapy

There are a variety of treatments and therapies to combat itchiness. Depending on your accompanying signs and symptoms, as well as previous exposures, there are also multiple ways to treat underlying causes of itchiness. Cold therapies include using cold compresses, cool water, or cold baths to calm down inflamed areas of itchiness. This is due to the sensations of "cold" and "itch" being along the same nerves. It is not recommended to use hot therapies as a way to treat itching.

Although it may provide initial relief, the hot water may actually irritate your skin even more. Menthol is a treatment is derived from different types of mint plants. Camphor is an ingredient that is used in products such as vapor rubs. Both substances have soothing and similar cooling effects as cold therapies. A common local anesthetic treatment is benzocaine. They relieve itchiness by blocking the nerve signals to your body that tell you to itch. Although benzocaine is generally safe to take, there have been instances of serious side effects such as irregular heartbeat, and coma from over-application of the cream.

Hydrocortisone creams are very common anti-itch over-the-counter creams that are best used to treat itchiness associated with rash. They are also best used to treat rashes that are responsive to the cream such as eczema. Hydrocortisone is not known to be very effective in treating itching associated with bug bites or stings. Since itching may result from allergies, oral antihistamines can be helpful in reducing symptoms. These work to block the protein histamine from taking effect in the body, thereby reducing itch. There are a myriad of anti-histamines available over-the-counter, that can also combat other symptoms of allergies.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

In order to prevent itching, you have to prevent the causes. One way to prevent itchiness is to know your allergies. Some allergies can be easily treated with creams and anti-histamines, but if you know what you are specifically allergic to, and you can find ways to avoid these allergens, you can avoid having to take medication.

Being outdoors can put you at great risk for being around triggers for itchiness such as bugs and poisonous plants. Protect your skin by wearing bug spray, wearing long sleeves and long pants when you can, and avoid being outdoors during dawn and dusk when many biting insects such as mosquitoes are most active.

Become familiar with what plants are poisonous such as poison oak and poison ivy, so you know to avoid them when you are outdoors. Finally, see your doctor for regular check-ups, and treat underlying medical conditions. By getting conditions such as diabetes and HIV managed and under control, the associated symptoms of itching can also be under control.

Books about Itchiness at