What is it?
Itch – to have or produce an unpleasant feeling on your skin or inside your mouth, nose, etc. that makes you want to scratch
Chronic itch, also known as pruritus, can be extremely uncomfortable and affects people’s lives in many ways. Poor sleep, problems concentrating, lowered sex drives and depression can all be attributed to the debilitating effects of chronic itch. Treating chronic itch can be very problematic, and in many cases involves trying a variety of methods, searching for the right treatment option to provide some level of relief to the suffering patient.
Itching is an intense, distracting irritation or tickling sensation that may be felt all over the skin’s surface, or confined to just one area.
Four Major types of Itch
- itch that originates from the skin
- chemically-induced itch
- itch related to damaged nerve fibers or internal diseases such as chronic renal failure or liver disease
- itch based on psychiatric reasons
Causes of Itch
- Allergic reaction to contact with specific chemicals, such as urushiol, derived from poison ivy or poison oak
- Body louse are found in substandard living conditions
- Cutaneous larva migrans
- Head lice, if limited to the neck and scalp
- Insect bites, such as those from mosquitos or chiggers
- Photodermatitis – Sunlight reacts with chemicals in the skin, leading to the formation of irritant metabolites
- Pubic lice, if limited to the genital area
- Scabies especially when several other persons in close contact also itch
- Shaving, which may irritate the skin
- Swimmer’s itch
- Varicella – Chickenpox, prevalent among young children and highly contagious
- Jock itch
Who gets it?
Anyone can get pruritus but certain groups of people are more susceptible to the condition, including:
- People with seasonal allergies, hay fever, asthma, and eczema
- People with diabetes
- People with HIV/AIDS and various types of cancer
- Pregnant women
- The elderly
Is it contagious?
Scratching an itch is contagious. Watching another person scratch an itch can cause you to do the same, and scientists have figured out the basis of this peculiar “itch contagion.” It’s all in your brain.
Merely seeing someone else scratch activates brain centers involved in the itch response, suggesting the observation makes one itchy.
But this response doesn’t apply to everyone. Those study participants who were more neurotic (a tendency toward negative emotions) were more likely to experience itch contagion. Surprisingly, the researchers found empathy (a willingness to take another’s viewpoint) did not correlate with the phenomenon. “It is conceivable that the neuronal networks or mechanisms underlying contagious itching may be similar to the ones involved in contagious yawning, a phenomenon that is still intensely studied, but not exactly clear,”
Scratching an itch is contagious
Signs and Symptoms:
Itchy skin may occur in small areas, such as on an arm or leg. Or your whole body may feel itchy. Itchy skin can occur without any other noticeable changes on the skin. Or it may be associated with:
- Bumps, spots or blisters
- Dry, cracked skin
- Leathery or scaly texture to the skin
Sometimes itchiness lasts a long time and can be intense. As you rub or scratch the area, it gets itchier. And the more it itches, the more you scratch. Breaking this itch-scratch cycle can be challenging.
Prolonged itching and scratching may increase the intensity of the itch, possibly leading to neurodermatitis (lichen simplex chronicus).
Neurodermatitis is a condition in which an area of skin that’s frequently scratched becomes thick and leathery. The patches can be raw, red or darker than the rest of your skin. Persistent scratching can also lead to a bacterial skin infection and permanent scars or changes in skin color.
Over the counter treatment:
Benadryl is the best over-the-counter medication for itching, but the sedating side effect makes it hard for some people to go about their everyday activities. Zyrtec and Claritin are other alternatives to Benadryl, and they cause fewer issues with drowsiness as a side effect.
Active ingredients: isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, benzalkonium chloride.
Common brand names: BD Alcohol Swabs, pharmacy brands, generic rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, Bactine (also includes lidocaine, a pain reliever).
How they work: They slow or halt the growth of germs on the skin’s surface to prevent infection in scrapes and cuts. Their routine use, however, is being closely scrutinized. Because isopropyl alcohol and hydrogen peroxide can also irritate wounds, rinsing the scrape with running water is equally effective, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
How/when to use: One liquid or spray application immediately after injury.
Important information: If the wound has not improved in one week, you need to see a doctor.
Active ingredients: bacitracin, polymyxin, neomycin.
Common brand names: Neosporin, Polysporin. Generics are available.
How they work: They prevent and treat infections by killing bacteria, and they keep wounds moist.
How/when to use: Apply one to three times a day. Cover with bandage.
Important information: Neosporin contains all three active ingredients. If you’re allergic to neomycin, choose Polysporin, which contains larger amounts of bacitracin and polymyxin but no neomycin. Neomycin may result in irritation, burning, redness, rash or itching in those who are allergic.
Tell your doctor if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, considering pregnancy or have had kidney disease before using neomycin.
Topical Pain Relievers
Active ingredients: lidocaine, benzocaine, pramoxine, butamben, tetracaine, camphor.
Common brand names: Bactine, Xylocaine, Lanacane, Campho-Phenique. Available as generics.
How they work: They reduce pain by blocking nerve signals, resulting in short-term numbness.
How/when to use: Apply one to three times a day.
Important information: In rare cases, using too much or applying to a wide area can cause death if large quantities are absorbed into the bloodstream. Tell your doctor if you are also taking medications for heart rhythm disorders. Many products — including Bactine First Aid Antibiotic Plus and Mycitracin — combine pain relievers with antibiotic ointments. Topical pain relievers can also be used to relieve itching.
Active ingredients: calamine, diphenhydramine, hydrocortisone.
Common brand names: Calamine Lotion, Caladryl, Aveeno, Benadryl, Cortizone, Cortaid, Gold Bond