12 Causes of Itchy Skin

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There are many things that can cause an itching sensation from simple weather-dried skin to brushing up against poison oak, ivy, and sumac. But there are also medical conditions that can cause itching as a symptom.

Around 10% of the population experience itchy skin. A 2021 review in Frontiers in Medicine noted that chronic itchy skin is one of the most frequent inflammatory skin issues in humans.

Itchy skin can be caused by a variety of things, including:

Sometimes itching involves your whole body, other times just one place. Itchy skin can last for weeks–or more. Sometimes itchiness comes with redness, rashes, bumps, or cracked skin, and sometimes it doesn't.

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Dry Skin

Dry skin is one of the most common causes of itchy skin, and one that usually doesn't come with a rash. It's common in older folks or people who smoke, spend too much time in the sun, or overuse skin products.

It's also prevalent in the winter and in dry environments.

Dry skin feels rough and flakes, but you shouldn't see any red bumps or welts, which are usually a sign of something else. Dry skin often itches, but not always.

Your first strategy against dry skin is to moisturize three to four times a day. Limit the time you spend in the bath or shower, as this can further dry your skin.

A common next step is 1% hydrocortisone skin cream, available over the counter. If that doesn't help after about a week, see a healthcare provider; they may prescribe a stronger steroid cream.

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Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema. It can appear as dry, red, irritated skin. You may also have small, fluid-filled bumps, which can break and crust over.

"The mainstay of eczema therapy is moisturize, moisturize, moisturize," said Nishit Patel, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine in Tampa. "In mild cases, that may be enough."

Choose your skincare products like soap carefully and avoid fragrances, said Dr. Patel. Dry sheets, scratchy fabrics, and hot showers can also aggravate the condition. Topical steroids may help.

"What's important are newer medications that are available for patients with atopic dermatitis," said Luz Fonacier, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and professor of medicine at SUNY Stony Brook.

"Before, there was nothing you could do [except] give topical steroids, moisturizers, and antihistamines."

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Allergic Contact Dermatitis

This type of itchy rash usually shows up where you came into contact with something you have an allergy or are sensitive to. It could be a chemical, paint, wool, or a fragrance. You may also have swelling or blisters that pop and leak fluid.

"Very commonly, [allergic contact dermatitis] looks just like eczema, but the distribution suggests there's more of an external trigger," said Dr. Patel.

Contact dermatitis can also be hard to identify because it can show up 72 hours or more after the exposure. In some cases, it may even turn up unexpectedly, even if you've been using the same product–like your favorite shampoo–for years.

"We don't fully understand why, [but] the immune system is not stagnant over time," said Dr. Patel.

Treat mild reactions with moisturizer and an over-the-counter topical corticosteroid. Talk to a healthcare provider if you have a more severe case with a larger rash or swelling. Do your best to determine what you reacted to–so you can avoid it in the future.

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Poison Ivy

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) being outdoors places you at risk of exposure to poisonous plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

When in contact with skin, the sap oil (urushiol) of these plants can cause a common form of allergic contact dermatitis.

And it's not safe to get rid of the poisonous plants by burning them. Burning them produces smoke that, when inhaled, can cause lung irritation.

Is it a poison ivy rash? Look for these symptoms to know:

  • Red rash within a few days of contact
  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Possible bumps, patches, streaking or weeping blisters
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Another cause of itchy skin, psoriasis is a skin condition that causes patches of thick red skin and silvery scales. It commonly affects knees, elbows, and the lower back, but it's possible to have psoriasis on your face too.

Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune condition that speeds up the growth cycle of skin cells, according to the CDC.

The treatment of psoriasis usually depends on how much skin is affected, how severe it is (e.g., having many or painful skin patches), or the location (especially the face).

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Itching can be a side effect of many medications. The symptom can also come with rashes or eczema-like dry skin. "Medication allergies generally present as rash and itching," said Dr. Patel.

Some of the culprits are painkillers (both over-the-counter and prescription), antibiotics like penicillin or sulfa drugs, and certain psychiatric and anti-seizure medications.

Talk to a provider if you take any of these meds and experience itchy skin. You may be able to find a substitute or change the dose–but never stop or adjust prescribed medications on your own.

If you have to stay on the medication, OTC antihistamines and ointments may help.

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Kidney Disease

Although the kidneys may feel unrelated to your skin, chronic kidney disease can cause itching. This type of itchiness often affects large areas and is worse at night.

"The kidneys are tasked with clearing toxins from the system," said Dr. Patel. "When you don't have those working optimally, you can have a buildup of metabolites that can collect in the skin and become triggers."

In fact, as many as 40% of people with end-stage renal disease may have itchy skin, which can severely affect their quality of life, as noted in a 2019 study published in Cureus.

Again, moisturizing is key. So is making sure you're getting the best treatment for your kidney disease.

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Liver Disease

Like the kidneys, the liver is also involved in clearing toxins from your body. That means problems with the liver can also cause buildups that lead to itchy skin.

Itching is common in those with chronic liver diseases, according to a report published in 2015 in the British Journal of General Practice. This includes:

  • Autoimmune liver diseases
  • Chronic viral hepatitis (mainly hepatitis C)
  • Liver injuries caused by drugs

The itching can be mild or severe, widespread or limited to certain areas (like the palms of the hands or soles of the feet). It can also come and go.

Itching related to liver disease tends to be worse before your period, when you're under stress, and at night.

Moisturizers and warm baths may help mild itchiness, while more severe itching might need medication.

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People with diabetes are more likely to have dry, itchy skin due to high blood sugar, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

Dry skin is prone to fungal infections like jock itch and athlete's foot, which in turn can also cause itching in certain areas. This itching, said Dr. Fonacier, tends to occur in specific spots and not across the entire body.

Using mild soap and other skincare products along with not staying too long in the bath or shower can help. Be sure to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize–and if problems get worse, talk to a healthcare provider.

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Shingles are a painful, blistery rash that can occur in people who've had chickenpox earlier in life.

Chickenpox itself is a considerable source of itchy misery, but any itching associated with shingles usually comes after the hallmark blisters are gone.

"The skin has healed but there is residual itching in the area because the nerve is irritated," said Dr. Fonacier.

The varicella-zoster virus causes both chickenpox and shingles, and there's no cure. The pain of shingles can be relieved by some medications, but easing the itch is a little trickier.

Topical solutions may help, but never put creams on lesions that are still active, said Dr. Fonacier. Talk to a healthcare provider about other remedies.

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Multiple Sclerosis

Even experts are stumped by multiple sclerosis (MS), the tricky autoimmune disease that affects females two to three times more often than males.

To add to the confusion, there's no diagnostic test for the disease, and one person can experience wildly different symptoms from another. What experts do know? MS occurs when the body starts to attack its own central nervous system.

Damage to the nerves of the central nervous system can lead to abnormal sensations, such as itching or a feeling of pins and needles, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

However, there are also many other conditions that can cause damage or dysfunction of nerves and lead to a feeling of itching. This includes spine disease, a compressed nerve, or peripheral neuropathy (affecting nerves outside the brain and spinal cord).

Some people with M.S. find that they experience more pain and itching with the following:

  • Being overheated
  • Illnesses
  • Stress
  • Fatigue

The itchiness is usually brief but if it occurs frequently, treatments such as medications, acupuncture, and cognitive behavioral therapy can help to manage the discomfort, per the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

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In rare cases, itchy skin can be a sign of cancer, usually blood cancer. One example is polycythemia vera, which affects the bone marrow.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, polycythemia vera is a rare blood disorder in which there are an increase in all blood cells, particularly red blood cells. This makes your blood thicker and can lead to strokes or tissue and organ damage.

People with this disease might experience itchiness after a warm bath or shower along with other symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.

Sézary syndrome, a type of lymphoma, can come with rashes, scaly skin, and itching as well.

People with pancreatic cancer may also itch–not from cancer itself, but from a tumor blocking the bile duct.

Talk to a healthcare provider about your symptoms–including if you have itchy skin while being treated for cancer, as some cancer treatments themselves can cause itching.

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