Itching

Also known as pruritus

Itching is the sensation on your skin that makes you want to scratch.

Key points

  1. Many things cause itching. Sometimes it can be hard to work out the exact cause
  2. Itching may be felt in one area of your body or your whole body, depending on what is causing the itchiness.
  3. Treatment usually depends on the cause of your itchiness.
  4. There are things you can do to help relieve your symptoms


Image credit: 123rf

What causes itching?

There are many possible causes of itching, including:

Sometimes the exact cause of itching can't be found.

What are the symptoms of itching?

The feeling of the itch can be unpleasant and uncomfortable. You may feel the sensation of itching in one area of your body or your whole body, depending on the cause.

In severe cases, itching can cause sleep disturbance, anxiety and depression

How is the cause of itching diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions about the itching, including whether you have any other symptoms and any allergies. Your doctor will also examine you and check your skin to see if you have a rash.

Some tests may be done, depending on what your doctor thinks is causing your itching. These include:

How is itching treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of your itchiness. Your doctor may prescribe some medicines or treatment to relieve your itchiness. These include:

Your doctor may also refer you to a dermatologist if your symptoms are not relieved by these medicines or you have complications. You can also find a private dermatologist here

How can I help myself with itching?

There are some self-care measures that you can do to help relieve the symptom of itching.

  • If you have dry skin, use moisturisers or emollients often. You can keep these in the fridge for an extra cooling treatment.
  • Avoid use skin irritants such as soaps or foaming body washes. Your doctor can prescribe soap substitutes to clean your skin.
  • Heat will make the itch worse. Keep yourself cool especially at night.
  • Make sure the water isn’t too hot in your shower or bath. Bathe quickly in cool or tepid water not more than once a day.
  • Scratching makes itching worse. Try not to scratch your skin when you feel itchy and avoid situations that can trigger the desire to scratch. 
  • Scratching worsens itching.
  • Keep your nails clean and short to reduce the skin damage caused by scratching.
  • Wear cotton gloves at night to reduce scratching in your sleep.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about itching. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations. 

Pruritus DermNet, NZ
Itching Patient Info, UK
Itchy skin NHS, UK
Pruritus British Association of Dermatologists, UK

References

  1. Pruritus Auckland Regional Health Pathways, NZ
  2. Pruritus DermNet, NZ

Reviewed by

Dr Sharon Leitch is a general practitioner and clinical research training fellow in the Department of General Practice and Rural Health at the University of Otago. Her area of research is patient safety in primary care and safe medicine use.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Sharon Leitch, GP and clinical research training fellow, University of Otago Last reviewed: 12 Jun 2020