You’re in bed, rolling around, trying to fall asleep, but you can’t stop scratching your itchy feet. The worst, right? You’re in desperate need of a brilliant remedy for itchy feet–fast–and you might also be wondering what causes itchy feet to begin with.
Itchy feet are often nothing more than annoying. But there are several causes of itchy skin that can affect your feet that are linked with more serious health conditions. Alongside that itchiness, you might notice redness or a rash; blisters; dry or scaly areas on the skin; itchy bumps on your feet; and even swelling.
Here are 12 causes of itchy feet to look out for–plus how to stop itchy feet from leaving you tender and uncomfortable.
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This fungal infection is a classic cause of itchy feet. “Fungus is able to grow and thrive in dark, moist areas, which is why it’s able to grow so well on our feet,” says podiatrist Yolanda Ragland, DPM, founder of Fix Your Feet.
It’s common to pick up the fungus by walking barefoot in places like gym locker rooms, says Adrian Cotton, MD, chief of medical operations at Loma Linda University Health. “It often presents as a scaly red rash, usually starting between the toes, and itching worse after socks are removed,” he says.
Athlete’s foot can also lead to itchy blisters on the feet and cracked, peeling skin, Dr. Ragland says. “Secondary bacterial infections can also occur from scratching the itchy area.”
Over-the-counter antifungal creams and sprays can usually clear up an outbreak and keep the infection at bay if you’re particularly susceptible to athlete’s foot. If OTC topical treatments don’t work, see a dermatologist.
Eczema is a blanket term for a group of medical conditions that can cause itchy and inflamed skin, often showing up relatively early in life. Atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, usually appers as a red, itchy rash on your cheeks, arms, legs, and feet.
“Mild itching caused by an eczema flare-up causes us to scratch the area, leading to a release of inflammatory molecules that lead to further development of eczema and more dry skin,” says podiatrist Dana Canuso, DPM, founder and CEO of Dr. Canuso Skincare for Feet. This catch 22 is called the “itch-scratch cycle,” she says.
“The best way to treat the itch is by not scratching, preventing any sweat around the area, and by applying moisturizing creams and lotions,” she adds. Your doctor may prescribe topical or oral steroid medications to mitigate the itchiness.
This autoimmune disease causes skin cells to grow super-fast and accumulate on the skin. “[They don’t] slough off like normal skin cells and [instead] build up into a silvery or white scaly patch,” Dr. Ragland says.
Those dry, scaly areas can make skin itchy–including on the feet. “The scaly lesions are often over the joints on the toes and can present with joint swelling and pain,” she says.
Topical creams and ointments can often help alleviate psoriasis symptoms, as can light therapy. Some people with psoriasis need oral medications or a newer form of injectable treatments called biologics, she says.
Depending on the season, you might be experiencing itchy feet from pesky mosquitoes and other insects. Bug bites trigger an inflammatory reaction in the body, including a release of the chemical histamine, “so it becomes itchy in the area,” says Dr. Ragland.
Bug bites can also bring swelling, redness, and irritation. They’re “often painful in the middle with itchiness on the edges,” adds Dr. Cotton.
There are a few home remedies for itchy bug bites on your feet. “A topical antihistamine like Benadryl can help relieve bug bites in the best way since the histamine is what causes the problem,” Dr. Ragland says. You can also use ice or a cold compress to help quiet some of that inflammation.
“In our society, we bathe too much and too long, often with hot showers, without properly moisturizing the skin, which dries it out,” says Dr. Ragland. Dry skin on your feet can also be something you inherit from your parents, or it can be due to certain medical conditions and medications, as well.
Dry skin can be caused by not drinking enough water, taking diuretics, or from exposure to heat or light, if it’s extreme or you struggle with sensitive skin, adds Dr. Cotton.
If your itchy feet are caused by dry skin, you'll noticed flaky, scale-like areas, as well as cracks in the skin, Dr. Ragland says. On darker complexions, dry skin can look white or ashy.
A few preventive measures for dry, itchy feet? “Every day, use a good moisturizer for your feet, especially the bottom of your feet,” Dr. Ragland says. “For very dry skin, use moisturizer while your feet are still wet, as it helps to lock in the moisture.”
This skin condition is caused by microscopic mites that burrow into the top layer of skin. Typically, scabies causes itchiness on the hands and arms, as well as on skin usually covered by jewelry, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. But in children, scabies can be widespread, affecting the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.
Some people with scabies develop a rash, sores, or thick, crusty areas. The itching is usually very intense and often worse at night.
“Since scabies is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, it can be contracted by anyone regardless of age, economic status, or race,” Dr. Ragland says.
Most people with scabies can be treated with prescription creams and lotions; some people may need an oral medication too, she says. Antihistamines and steroid creams can also help relieve the itchy, inflammatory response.
If you do have scabies, keep your feet clean and to yourself, as it is very contagious, says Dr. Cotton. Wash clothing and bedding daily until it’s gone.
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Allergic contact dermatitis
An itchy rash on your feet could be allergic contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction to something your feet have come in contact with. “Exposure to irritants such as chemicals or even allergens in soaps, cosmetics, and plants can cause allergic contact dermatitis,” says Dr. Canuso. One that commonly affects the feet, she says, is the dye found in dark socks. “Dermatitis from this can cause itchy feet wherever the sock touched the foot,” she says.
Get rid of those socks–and use over-the-counter anti-itch creams to relieve discomfort.
Certain medical conditions, such as liver or kidney disease, can lead to itchy hands and feet. “When our kidneys fail to function properly, fluid and waste that the kidneys can’t remove stay in our blood,” explains Dr. Canuso. “This buildup of waste and increase in fluid can cause severe itching in all extremities, usually noticed first in the legs and feet.”
Treating the underlying disease and its complications–whether with prescription medications or dialysis– can often help alleviate symptoms.
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Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, can lead to itchiness all over, including on the feet.
“An underactive thyroid causes decreased cellular turnover, leaving skin dry, flaky, and itchy,” says Dr. Canuso. “This type of dryness can be treated with various types of over-the-counter heel creams or foot serums to increase moisture to the area,” she says.
Your itchy feet should also clear up once you start thyroid medication to treat the underactive gland.
If you’re pregnant and can’t stop scratching your itchy feet, you could have pruritus gravidarum, a kind of severe itchiness in moms-to-be. It’s caused by an obstruction of bile from the liver, called cholestastis, Dr. Canuso explains, and it can happen to anyone.
The condition particularly affects the abdomen, hands, and feet, leading to itchy palms and soles, she says.
You’ll need to discuss treatment options–which can include prescription oral meds–with your doctor. Antihistamine ointments or creams can help soothe the itchiness in the meantime, says Dr. Cotton.
High blood sugar in people with diabetes can cause dry, itchy skin, including on the feet.
It can also lead to circulation problems that put people with diabetes at higher risk for open sores and infections, including ones that cause itchy feet. “Some people even say they never had foot fungus before they had diabetes,” Dr. Ragland says.
Dry, itchy feet can be treated with moisturizers, and fungal infections can be treated like athlete’s foot. You’ll also need to discuss diabetes treatment with your doctor.
While rare, itchy feet could be a sign of cancer. Liver or pancreatic cancer–or cancer that has spread to the liver–can cause jaundice, a yellowing of the skin that’s associated with a buildup of a compound formed in the liver called bilirubin, explains Dr. Canuso. “Bilirubin can react with skin causing you to itch, especially on your hands and feet,” she says.
To treat these types of skin changes, you must check with your doctor to treat the underlying cause first.
Leukemia, lymphoma, and skin cancer may also cause itching, although it’s unusual to have skin cancer on your feet. Treatment for cancer, like chemotherapy and radiation, can cause itching too, Dr. Cotton adds.
Once the reason for your itchiness is known, you may be able to treat symptoms with antihistamines and moisturizing creams.